Why Sarah Palin is right about having a competitive primary season

The short answer is that Mitt Romney isn’t a small-government conservative.  The slightly longer answer is that Barack Obama has been – as he promised to be – a game-changer, and the 2012 election is the one in which libertarian anti-statism will either have a voice in the Republican Party, or will have to do something else.

This primary season is a fight for the character of the GOP.  The fight is not the perennial standoff between “social cons” and “fiscal cons”; it is a long-postponed dispute over the size and charter of government, and how the GOP will approach it.  It is the most basic possible dispute over ideas about man and the state and their consequences.  It’s also a dispute only the Republican Party could have.  The Democratic Party does not have such a diversity of viewpoint, at least not in any politically consequential way.  The decision about whether America will continue on a fiscally unsustainable path of ever-growing statism comes down to the GOP’s fight with itself.

The Romney wing represents the attitude that America is really OK with the size of government we have now: it just needs better management and some tweaking on the margins.  The Romney wing does not by any means have a class-hostile, socialist vision for the future.  It has no intention of interfering with the citizens’ intellectual liberties, and its view of managerial government is not predicated on the idea that the people need to be coerced (or “nudged”) into collectivist life choices.  It simply sees the existing size of government as compatible with a free-enough life, in the sense that we don’t need to push for significant changes.

The other wing – the one that has been getting behind a different candidate every few weeks – believes precisely that America is not OK with the size of government we have now.  Its main point is that our fiscal and economic problems, and many of our social ones, result directly from the size and interventionist activities of government.  The size of government is the problem – already, today – and if it isn’t fixed, America literally cannot survive as a republic with the intellectual and lifestyle liberties we have enjoyed up to now.

Many in the GOP’s “Not OK” wing have perceived government to be out of control for some time.  But the shock administered by the Obama administration gave the most direct impetus to the Tea Party movement, because it brought home to many Americans how vulnerable we had already become to executive overreach.

For this wing of the GOP, it isn’t enough to put a Republican in charge of the sprawling, momentum-driven executive.  The mere existence of such a gigantic apparat is an already-proven threat to liberty.  A Democrat could be reelected to head it at any time, and even with a Republican in charge, the civil-service army would continue in obscurity to pursue regulatory and money-spending charters issued years or decades ago.  The failure of Congress to pass a budget for over 1,000 days has suspended the legislature’s principal hammer over the executive’s freedom to do what it wants.  As long as government limps along from month to month, on continuing resolutions that are mainly about constituency-tending fights in the House and Senate, Congress cannot gather its will to bargain seriously with the executive over spending priorities.

For the “Not OK” wing of the GOP, what is essential in 2012 is repudiating government on this model.  Nothing is more important to America’s future than that.  The different wings of the GOP have differing views of what constitutes “realism”:  the “America is OK” wing views it as unrealistic to focus on something other than putting up the candidate whom they feel will appeal to the most voters.  The “Not OK” wing sees that as an unrealistic perspective on the current situation.  If government is not reined in – put through an effective bankruptcy proceeding, with its assets sold off and its charter reorganized – then nothing else will matter.

Who is right?  While I am with the “Not OK” wing philosophically, I don’t think it would be the end of America as we know it if Mitt Romney were elected.  But I do believe it would be a grave strategic error for the Republican Party to endorse him early, and silence intra-party dissent as if he represents what America really needs.  A Romney presidency would be no more than a hiatus in deliberately using the state as a steamroller for ideological purposes.  That would be better than 4 more years of Obama, but from the perspective of getting America on a different path, it’s not good enough.

The GOP needs this fight over philosophy of government.  What has to be established in the 2012 primary season is that the small-government vote matters.  If that is not established, the GOP itself will matter little.  Its difference from the Democratic Party will not be sufficient to attract (or keep) membership.

I believe Palin has a strategic view of America’s future that looks beyond the 2012 election itself.  The most important thing now is that the small-government perspective continue to have a chance to express itself on its terms.  If it is silenced in electoral politics, there will be no hope of changing America’s path.  And the only way for it to have a voice is for this primary season to continue on a competitive basis.  That is the mechanism through which the voice of either wing of the party matters to the industry of politics.  That’s where the noise has to be made.

Palin is right.  This is an incredibly “political” year, more so than any year I can remember other than maybe 1979.  Americans are more engaged in political ideas than I have ever seen them.  Obama’s poll numbers aren’t good, but perhaps more importantly, those numbers and others on GOP candidates keep shifting.  People’s choices haven’t been set in stone.  They’re not sure what’s going on, they’re still trying to find a candidate who says what they’re waiting to hear, and they haven’t made up their minds.  The media will do what they’re going to do, but the people are having a separate dialogue with themselves, and it isn’t over.

I believe the GOP would be out of step with the remarkable nature of this year to crown a big-government-as-usual candidate early, on the theory that we need to damp down philosophical debate and concentrate on “campaigning” as early as possible before November.  The campaigning is what is annoying the living bejeebers out of the voters; it’s the philosophical debate that matters this year.  Shutting it down would be a tactical as well as a strategic error.  The only way to force Romney to the right is to keep the primary season competitive.  It’s also the way to keep quality attention on the most important debate America has had on the nature of government since 1860.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.