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Active Debate?

Over at Newsweek, Michael Gerson has an end-of-the-year piece laying out what ails the Republican Party. Gerson's argument is that there is a split between big government Republicans and more libertarian minded antigovernment activists. He writes:

The response of many Republicans was to use [Hurricane Katrina] as an excuse for cutting government spending, particularly the Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors. At a post-Katrina meeting with White House officials, one conservative think-tank sage urged: "The president needs to give up something he wants. Why not the AIDS program for Africa?"

This reaction previews a broader, high-stakes Republican debate as we head toward the 2008 election. One Republican Party--the Republican Party of movement conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the think-tank world--will argue that the "big government Republicanism" of the Bush era has been a reason for recent defeats. Like all fundamentalists, the antigovernment conservatives preach that greater influence requires a return to purity--the purity of Reaganism.

Gerson goes on to say that this supposed "purity" is a myth--a point well taken. But is this debate within the Republican Party really going to occur? Sure, maybe it will on conservative blogs and in the conference rooms of Washington D.C. think tanks. But every major Republican candidate running for president is of the big government variety. McCain may dislike pork and talk about lowering spending, but he is fundamentally in favor of an activist government, on everything from global warming to campaign finance reform. Romney (who signed a bill mandating universal health care in Massachusetts) and Giuliani (who was a very activist mayor) are cut from the same cloth. And then a notch (or three) below these guys are Mike Huckabee (whose claim to fame is his effort to get the government and private industry to work together on eliminating junk food in public schools) and Sam Brownback. There's also Newt Gingrich, who, 1994 notwithstanding, seems to want serious legislation for every challenge that America faces (on television yesterday he suggested that we start a civilian conservation corps in Iraq). Anyway, the problem for Bush and the Republicans vis-a-vis Katrina wasn't an internal split or anti-government rhetoric. It was a lack of competence and (dare I say it, Michael Gerson) compassion. --Isaac Chotiner