A Conservative Congress
We have had many conservative presidents. Some have even gone down as among the great or near great presidents, including Ronald Reagan, by some measures.
But has there ever been a great conservative Congress?
The great Congresses of the 20th century gave us, in Woodrow Wilson's day, the Federal Reserve, in FDR's day, the New Deal, in LBJ's day, the Great Society. All of these were liberal Congresses.
But what of the conservative Congresses?
They are remembered for the Hawley-Smoot tariff and McCarthy-era excesses. In the 1990s the Republican Congress produced welfare reform and budget surpluses, but these could as easily be credited to Democrat Bill Clinton as to Republican Newt Gingrich.
Well, we are about to find out if a conservative Congress can do great things. If not now, as Reagan famously said, when? If not us, who?
It may be that it is impossible for a Republican Congress to be great. It's like asking a dog to do seal tricks. A conservative Congress can't be caught doing too much without earning a reputation for activism, which would make it seem un-conservative.
The difference between conservative presidents and conservative Congresses is that presidents can earn their stripes in foreign affairs, a field that demands action even to further conservative goals. Thus, Reagan's activism in ending the Cold War is regarded as distinctly conservative. But the Congress of course plays only a second-fiddle role in foreign policy. (One exception would appear to be Congressman Charlie Wilson's role in funding the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as related by George Crile in Charlie's War.)
Reagan of course also bolstered his conservative credentials with the passage of his giant tax cuts. But whether his tax cutting strategy can genuinely be described as conservative is subject to question. It resulted in the largest peace-time deficits in American history. To be sure, it helped shift the tax burden to the working class, but is that a conservative achievement? Cutting programs would be a conservative achievement; Reagan cut few programs, as David Stockman conceded in his candid memoirs.
The Republican Congress could make a mark in history by drastically cutting back on spending, but thus far at least it has shown as little interest in this endeavor as Democratic Congresses.