I combed through hundreds of history books covering American public policy since 1945, tracking the most significant domestic policy changes that made it into law and the actors that historians credit for those changes. Of the 509 most significant domestic policies passed by Congress, only one in five were conservative, in that they contracted the scope of government funding, regulation or responsibility. More than 60 percent were liberal: They clearly expanded government. The others offered a mix of liberal or conservative components or took no clear ideological direction. When significant policy change occurs in the executive branch, it is even less likely to be conservative; only 10 percent of the executive orders and agency rules that policy historians cited were conservative.
Even labeling as conservative policy government expansions in pursuit of conservative goals, such as traditional values or tougher sentencing, makes little difference in this conclusion; few significant policy changes fall into this category, though we hear about them often in campaigns.
Not surprisingly, liberals play a greater role in bringing about new policy. Historians credited twice as many liberal interest groups as conservative groups with policy change. Democratic politicians also played more frequent roles. The most active Republicans, such as President Richard Nixon and Sens. Jacob K. Javits and Bob Dole, supported mostly liberal and mixed policy changes, rather than conservative changes. Republican involvement in policy has meant compromising with liberals to expand government or trading contraction in one place for expansion in another.
There is a good reason why conservatives are often charged with obstruction. When government is more active, it is usually moving policy to the left.