HOSTILITY to government has been an animating (if not always perfectly applied) sentiment of conservatism for decades. Ronald Reagan famously declared that ''government is not the solution; government is the problem'' to general applause on the right.
Recently, the Ethics and Public Policy Center hosted a seminar to examine whether anti-governmentism has edged into anti-patriotism on the right. William Kristol and David Brooks, both of The Weekly Standard, argued -- as they first did in the Wall Street Journal in September -- that conservatives need to rethink their reflexive anti-governmentism.
Mr. Brooks reviewed recent history: In the weeks and months after the stunning victory of Republicans in November 1994, Republican anti-government rhetoric reached dizzying heights. Every Newt Gingrich speech was laced with contempt for bureaucrats and Washington. There was talk of eliminating whole agencies with the stroke of a pen. Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, called Washington ''evil.'' It was conservatism's headiest hour.
And when the showdown with President Clinton came in 1995, conservative politicians, intellectuals and pundits spoke with one voice: No Compromise. Let the government close for days or weeks, we said.
Who would know?
Besides, we scoffed, in an echo of Dorothy Parker's cut about Calvin Coolidge's death (''How can they tell?''), who would notice?
Well, people did notice. And they blamed the Republicans. Republicans later complained that press bias accounted for the public's response to the shutdown showdown. Well, the press played a role. But the public recalled accurately that it was the Republicans who came into power exulting in their anti-government animus.
While Republicans held on to the House in 1996, they did so narrowly and have become cowed and cautious in the aftermath of the budget showdown and Mr. Clinton's re-election. The budget deal agreed to by the Republican majority increases federal spending by $250 billion, enshrines new entitlements like tax breaks for college expenses and health care for children, and increases spending on things conservatives once thought anathema, like bilingual education.
Messrs. Kristol and Brooks believe that if this is what comes from anti-government fervor, there must be a better way. They still believe in smaller, more limited government, but they argue that the utter trashing of government amounts to trashing one's country. Millions of American soldiers have died for the fact and the principle of self-government. Conservatives have gone too far in despising it.
For support, Messrs. Kristol and Brooks cite Alexander Hamilton. Surely conservatives claim him. Yet he favored a strong central government and was a forceful Treasury secretary because he believed in the role of government. Hamilton knew that for commerce to thrive, government must establish the rules. The country's experience with the Articles of Confederation proved that.
It is a measure of the cynicism of our time that even to speak of American greatness today sounds grandiloquent.
A unique patriotism
But American patriotism is unlike that of Europe or the rest of the world. It is based on belief in principles, not blood or land. Messrs. Kristol and Brooks say that patriotism must be tapped for today's tasks: busting the public trusts like Social Security and public schools.
Messrs. Kristol and Brooks have a sound rhetorical point. The anti-government talk had become excessive -- and in light of the actual behavior of elected Republicans -- laughable. But Mr. Reagan, who believed in a strong state in some realms (defeating the evil empire), was quite contemptuous of the overgrown state at home, and it never hurt him politically. Of course, Mr. Reagan had the Cold War to bolster his conservatism.
But when your primary domestic aim is to improve America by taming government, it becomes trickier to frame it as greatness.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 10/28/97