During the shutdown many conservatives would wisecrack that the government should stay closed or that no one missed the government when it was shut. And when, albeit in his ungracious style, the president on Thursday chastised the Republicans and touted the benefits of government, Republicans bristled. (Considering how bad the thrashing, the president’s speech could have been a whole lot worse.) Liberals often accuse the GOP of being “anti-government,” and at times Republicans surely play to type.

(Kevin Lamarque/Reuters) (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Conservatives, as opposed to libertarians, have not historically believed in zero government or even taken issue with a great many functions and services (e.g. the Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal courts, national parks, the Food and Drug Administration). What they have objected to is how these programs are run and the expansion of government into areas in which it has no expertise (e.g. running health care, buying a car company) or actually does damage (e.g. Fannie and Freddie). Is any Republican introducing bills to shut down the SEC, FDA and national parks? If not, why luxuriate in closing those functions?

Indeed, for conservatives concerned about the debt the discretionary spending — that was what was at issue in the shutdown — is small potatoes compared to the gigantic burden of entitlement programs that are squeezing out programs Americans want or need (e.g. national security). The more persuasive argument would have been, “If  we don’t control entitlement spending all those national park, NIH scientists and National Security Agency analysts connecting the dots will be gone for good.”

Likewise, Republicans want to make federal pay and benefits comparable to the private sector, get rid of needlessly expensive regulations (e.g. Davis-Bacon union-mandated wage rates for contracts) and allow merit hiring and firing. So why the open contempt for and indifference to the hardship of ordinary people sidelined during the shutdown? Why begrudge them unemployment benefits if they needed to pay the rent or feed their family?

As a conservative friend and think-tanker joked, were these conservatives “raised by wolves”?

On one hand, you can dismiss this as  unthinking, glib mouthing off that is unfortunately encouraged on Twitter and talk shows. Some of this, then, you can chalk up to rhetorical excess and less than sparkling humor. But unfortunately some of the anti-government sentiments you hear from extreme libertarians has seeped into the conservative playbook. Rather than reform or limit government, they imagine a pre-New Deal or pre-Progressive era government can be reinstated in the 21st century.

There is zero appetite for this among all but a smidgen of voters. Moreover, the problem is not just that rolling the clock back 80 years is not going to work, it is that it is a really bad idea. What is entirely reasonable and necessary to unburden our economy, however, is to end the excessive, stifling and counterproductive regulations and subsidies that cripple business and suppress innovation and competitiveness.

Maybe we shouldn’t take the “Keep it closed!” voices too seriously. (That is good advice for social media and talk radio, which are first and foremost entertainment or outlets for self-expression.) But conservatives would be smart to come to terms with reality. We are not going to have a pre-New Deal federal government. The vast majority of Americans want things like OSHA inspections and Medicare. Conservatives need to stop sounding like they are anti-government (why elect them then to run it if they are?) and offer a coherent explanation for improving what the federal government does, what states and communities can do and why Americans do best with limited but energetic government. That is the real response to liberals excessive reliance on government and mistaken belief that there are no downsides to an ever-expanding social welfare state.

Conservatives come under more scrutiny from mainstream media outlets. That’s a fact of political life. But they needn’t give them ammunition. More important, they should not distort conservatism. Conservatism isn’t about chasing a bygone era, but rather about using conservative principles leveled with good judgment to right-size government and make it work for ordinary Americans. At a time when Obamacare is a perfect example of liberal overreach, that’s not a bad message for a wide electorate.