Saturday, October 11, 2003

Rights and Reason: The Perils of Centrism

California's recall election was great theater, but if you like an ideological lesson from your politics, consider the recent provincial elections in Ontario. The once-popular Progressive Conservatives were tossed in favor of a pro-tax increase, pro-social spending Liberal Party. Mike Harris, the Conservative leader elected by voters in 1995, served two successful terms on a platform of tax cuts, lower spending, and deregulation dubbed the "Common Sense Revolution," a local variant of the 1994 Republican "Contract with America."

Harris' successor, Ernie Eves, turned his back on Harris' agenda and embraced "pragmatic centrism". The Cato Institute's Patrick Basham describes how Eves' attempt at centrism only forced the voters to choose a more radical government:
Premier Eves explicitly ran away from what had worked for the Conservatives, both as an electoral and a governing strategy. Eves's deputy premier proclaimed, "The Common Sense Revolution is over." Eves, the pragmatist, postponed tax cuts, cancelled Harris's plan to deregulate the province's electricity market, and sought to appease the leftist teachers' unions. If enacted, the Conservatives' campaign platform would have widened the (once again) large provincial deficit.

In this vein, Eves returned Ontario to "Red Toryism" as a governing philosophy. The Red Tories, who dominated Canada's conservative politics until a decade ago, are really just social democrats with a traditionalist bent. Most Canadian Red Tories make liberal Republicans appear to be paragons of libertarian virtue.

Powerful Red Tories in the Conservative party pined for the good ol' days of the "Big Blue Machine," the moniker given to the cabal of party strategists who kept left-leaning Premier Bill Davis in office between 1971 and 1985. The Big Blue Machine's winning strategy stressed accommodation with the social democratic policy agenda. Being in power for these Conservatives wasn't about articulating conservative policy choices; it was about being in power. Period.

Critically, the Harris government demonstrated not only that appeasement on taxes and spending was antithetical to good public policy but also that it was no longer good politics. Ontario voters reflected their pragmatism by voting for the Common Sense Revolution twice.

Eves abandoned this winning formula. Stunningly, the new Conservative premier deliberately chose a "Liberal Lite" posture when the Ontario electorate had the option of voting for the "real thing" in the form of Dalton McGuinty, the relatively telegenic, youthful Liberal leader.
Basham correctly describes the post-election Ontario Conservatives as "visionless and powerless," and suggests President Bush should take a lesson from this Northern debacle. If the White House persists in embracing a lite version of the Democratic domestic policy agenda, it will open itself up to defeat in 2004. After all, if Bush promises the people partial government financing of prescription drugs, then why not embrace a Democratic nominee who will support full government financing? If the mission of government is not to protect individual rights, but to encourage "service to others" (a tenet of Bush's "compassionate conservatism"), than why not support a Democrat who will make such service compulsory?

True, President Bush has embraced tax cuts in a way most centrist Republicans have not, but without advocating meaningful reductions in spending--to say nothing of creating new programs--this policy merely advances the Democratic charge that Bush is fiscally reckless. Bush's administration also supports numerous forms of costly regulation, such as steel tariffs and antitrust enforcement, that do far more harm to the economy than tax cuts alone will cure. If this administration is serious about reelection, it needs to offer a positive agenda that is not a faded copy of their opponents' platform.

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