The Public Eye: John McCain and the Death of Conservatism

By Bob Burnett
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 10:02:00 AM

As the primary season grinds to a close, many Democrats expect a decisive victory in the November general election and look forward to four years of a Democratic president working with a partisan Congress. What isn’t being discussed is the possible end of the conservative era. The smashing defeat of John McCain and the Republican Party should signal that Americans reject the inept conservative ideology that’s dominated U.S. politics for 28 years. 

Since the Reagan presidency, four pillars of American conservative ideology have controlled political discourse. The first is the idea that America is best protected by a gargantuan military. Conservatives have contended that to keep the U.S. safe it is necessary to have by far the biggest defense establishment. This notion reached its apotheosis at the end of the Reagan era when the U.S. won the arms race with the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War. 

After 1990, conservatives insisted U.S. military expenditures should remain enormous, citing first the risk from “rogue states” and more recently the threat of terrorism. The fallacy of this position became clear during the George W. Bush Administration: having the world’s largest military didn’t protect the United States on 9/11; conventional military action didn’t bring the terrorist perpetrators to justice; and an exclusively military operation in Iraq didn’t produce stability and democracy. 

The past seven years revealed that the conservative illusion of protecting America exclusively by a gargantuan military has two logical flaws: In the modern world no problem can be solved by an exclusively military response. And it makes no sense for conservatives to argue for a small, well-managed Federal government while insisting that a humongous military establishment be run with no performance expectations. Yet Senator McCain advocates an inept conservative military strategy, to continue fighting the Cold War. 

The second pillar of conservative ideology is the promise of small government. Since the Reagan presidency, conservatives have contended that the Federal government needs to be transformed by professional management. Instead, they have reduced governmental oversight—causing problems such as the recent credit crisis—and filled the Federal government with incompetent political appointments such as Michael Brown and Donald Rumsfeld. Again, McCain promises to continue these dysfunctional conservative practices that decrease the effectiveness and integrity of Federal programs. 

The third pillar of conservatism is tax reduction. Beginning with the Reagan era, conservatives have argued that much of the federal government is a waste of money and, therefore, Americans shouldn’t have to pay for it. As a result, the marginal tax rates for individuals and corporations were diminished, until today they are roughly half of what they were in 1980. However, while federal revenues diminished, expenditures grew because of the growth of the military establishment and the reality that Americans rely upon federal services. During the Bush administration the federal budget deficit grew to the point where it became a serious impediment to U.S. economic growth. John McCain continues to advocate lower taxes for the rich and powerful, regardless of their impact. 

The fourth pillar of conservatism is the promise of competent management. Ronald Reagan recognized that when Americans have confidence in their leaders, particularly the president, they are optimistic about the future, which is good for the economy. But after eight years of George W. Bush, Americans no longer have faith in their Republican leaders. Eighty-two percent of Americans believe the United States is headed in the wrong direction, and two-thirds feel it’s Bush’s fault. 

For the past 28 years, conservatives have argued that while Democrats are “social engineers” who know only how to lash together ineffective federal social programs, Republicans are “professional managers” who know how to run government like a business. Eight years of George W. Bush, the first “CEO president,” have proven this to be a lie. Furthermore, John McCain’s candidacy is not run by professional managers, but by corporate lobbyists. 

John McCain’s presidential campaign is based upon a single premise: “I’m well prepared to continue the Bush era.” Despite his unearned reputation as a maverick, McCain is a rock-ribbed conservative who advocates the same flawed ideology that has driven every Republican administration since Reagan: a bloated military establishment, a neutered Federal bureaucracy, lower taxes for the rich and powerful, and incompetent management.  

If McCain is defeated, what Democratic ideology will replace the vacuum created by the failure of conservatism? Hopefully, one that favors a smaller, more flexible military coupled with diplomatic initiatives to effectively fight the war on terrorism. Domestically, this should be paired with a smaller, more effective government tailored to meet the needs of working families and provide the oversight required to protect all Americans. To balance the budget, and help get the economy back on track, Democrats should emphasize equitable taxation—a system where everyone pays their fair share. 

None of this will be possible without competent management. For the past 28 years, Republicans have substituted ideological dogmatism for managerial expertise. They’ve focused on amassing power rather than on governing America for the best interests of all the people. Beginning in January 2009, Democrats should have the opportunity to reverse the savage legacy of conservatism and turn America in a positive direction. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at