In the aftermath of defeat, Republicans and conservatives are debating the future direction of the party and the movement. While some argue that the GOP, at least, must reach out to new voting blocs, and therefore must moderate some of its recent positions, columnist Jonah Goldberg warns against alienating the core constituencies. Goldberg also denies an evolving thesis of conventional wisdom: that there's a growing schism separating people who are fiscally conservative but socially "liberal" from social conservatives.
In Republican circles, some people must be arguing that the first group must be their target for future success, but Goldberg questions whether the category even exists. "The idea that social liberalism and economic conservatism can coexist easily is not well supported by the evidence," he writes, "It turns out that people who buy into the logic of social liberalism, not just on abortion but racial and other issues as well, usually find themselves ill-equipped ideologically to say no to additional spending on causes they care about."
Goldberg may be missing the main point. He defines economic conservatism (allowing for a hair-splitting distinction between "economic" and "fiscal" conservatives) entirely within the context of government spending. To be a conservative, as he sees it, is primarily to be against "big government." This isn't untrue, but the terms of the debate are changing as we speak. The financial crisis and the Bailout are forcing the free market upon us as a fresh debate subject. The question is becoming less about how big government should be, and more about how free the market should be. Government's role becomes less a question of spending and more one of regulation. In this changing context, it doesn't necessarily follow that social conservatives will remain economic conservatives. They may opt for an older form of economic conservatism dating back to 19th century Britain, when Tories upheld state regulation of the economy while Liberals advocated laissez-faire. At the same time, libertarians will continue their commitment to limited government with free markets and (at least) cultural liberalism.
It's Goldberg's right to desire a Republican party dedicated before all else to limited government. But his argument that social, cultural or religious conservatives are the most dependable friends of limited government looks like wishful thinking. He acknowledges that "it's also difficult to be fiscally conservative and socially conservative if you've jettisoned the conservative dogma of limited government," making his faith in the Religious Right's commitment to limited government even more dubious. Again, Goldberg himself writes that "The religious right is much more likely to stop being 'right' than stop being religious." That coming near the close of his column makes reading it seem even more like a waste of time.