The American Spectator today published a stinging indictment of the Bush presidency and the Republican congress for betraying conservatism. What’s interesting about that? The American Spectator is a conservative magazine. I’ve been barraged with copies of one article by Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal from publicists usually pedalling anti-liberal diatribes.
Since many readers here aren’t likely willing to stomach the Spectator’s website, where this article has yet to be posted, here it is… And expect more of this sort of thing during this election cycle.
SECTION: What the Republican surrender to Big Government means for the future of the Conservative Movement.
HEADLINE: We Are All Post-Reaganites Now
BYLINE: Stephen Moore
THROUGHOUT THE 1980S, REAGAN LOYALISTS USED TO COMPLAIN only half jokingly that the only mistake the Gipper ever made was at the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit—when he selected George Bush Sr. as his running mate. When Bush Sr. ran for president calling for a “kinder and gentler nation,” the Reagan team couldn’t resist asking: Kinder and gentler than whom? When the Bush Sr. White House purged the Reagan political appointees, the suspicion was only reinforced that there are two wings of the party: a Reagan wing and a Bush wing. It was also a signal that Bush would be leading policy in a new direction with Reagan gone. And indeed he did.
Under Bush Sr. the budget ballooned, regulations proliferated, and the final sucker punch to the conservative movement was the infamous betrayal of the Read My Lips, No New Taxes pledge. Bush’s abandonment of Reagan’s philosophy led to his receiving the lowest vote share for an incumbent president in nearly 100 years. Many distraught conservatives believed at the time that Bush Sr. had eviscerated the Reagan legacy more thoroughly than any Democrat could have done.
They were wrong. Reagan’s themes of conservative governance—“that government is too big and it costs too much”—carried the Republicans to the breakthrough election in 1994 with the GOP sweeping into new heights of power in Congress and virtually all levels of government. There could be no doubt about it that by the late 1990s, nearly 20 years after Reagan’s elevation to the presidency, this was still the party of Reagan—perhaps more than ever.
The core philosophy of Reaganism was so firmly and fondly implanted into the psyche of the conservative electorate that George W. Bush wisely ran for president as the natural heir to Reagan, not his father.
But six years into the Bush presidency, the conservative movement and the Republican Party itself are suffering a nervous breakdown. What does it mean to be a Republican? In many respects George W. Bush has redefined the party in ways that conservatives can only watch with a sense of horror. But let’s be clear that Bush has also advanced the cause of conservatism in many productive ways: he has cut taxes; he has put what appear to be two conservative superstars on the Supreme Court; he has resisted lunatic regulations such as the Kyoto “kick America first” treaty; he has been solidly pro-life; and despite some setbacks (steel and lumber tariffs) he’s been generally free trade. Bush’s greatest contribution to the conservative movement has been to deny the White House to ultra-liberals Al Gore and John Kerry. For finding the formula to break the hearts of the left and send Barbra Streisand, Michael Moore, and George Soros into a collective depression, he deserves a heap of praise.
INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH, Bush’s liberal critics snicker that this presidency has been an extension of Reagan’s: the Gipper’s stealth third and fourth terms. These critics don’t mean this in a particularly flattering way.
In reality, what Bush and neoconservative disciples have created is not so much an extension of Reaganism, but rather a new governing philosophy for the GOP that threatens to dissolve the Reagan coalition. The core of Reagan’s philosophy was a repudiation of big government and a celebration of free markets. The post-Reagan GOP governing philosophy has made peace with big government. What is not clear is whether this dEtente with big government is one of core conviction—the Bush Republicans have come to believe that government is actually a force for good (let’s hope not)—or whether it is one of convenience, i.e., they simply believe that it’s just too politically treacherous to cut spending. Probably, the answer is a little of both.
But whatever the explanation, what is giving the conservative movement heartburn (and justifiably so) is that Bush and the Republican Congress’s record on federal spending has been downright awful. If Congress approves Bush’s latest budget request, the federal budget will have been super-sized by 48 percent in six years during Bush’s presidency.
In every year, Bush has advanced a new expensive silver-plated government agency or initiative. First there was the “No Child Left Behind” education bill, then the multi-billion dollar manned mission to Mars, then the massive hike in foreign aid, the obese farm bill, and the biggest sellout of all, the multi-trillion dollar Medicare prescription drug bill. This year Bush is on a kick for a new national energy program to cure America’s alleged “addiction to oil.” All the alternative energy subsidies that will get funding are eerily reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s disastrous synthetic fuels corporation—an alternative energy boondoggle that cost $2 billion and never produced electricity. At the time of this writing, there have been no Bush vetoes of spending bills and as a result the number of pork-barrel projects has embarrassingly tripled in five years.
A big explanation for the cancerous growth of the government in recent years has been a tendency by President Bush to believe that there is a government grant program to solve every problem that afflicts America. Bush may not have announced an anti-acne agency yet, but it wouldn’t be a stretch. He wants to send a man to Mars—not Hillary Clinton, regrettably—which will cost $500 billion over ten years. He wants to spend millions to promote holy matrimony. He wants to spend $200 million to fight obesity—but why can’t we just tell fat people to stop overeating? There will be funds to fight AIDS in Africa and to purchase garbage trucks in Iraq. He wants money for hydrogen-operated cars, and a manufacturing czar, who presumably, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, can click the heels on her ruby slippers and make factory jobs reappear. He says that he will build a hospital in every farm town in America and recently signed a bill that gives federal handouts to avocado growers.
BUT GEORGE BUSH DOESN’T DESERVE all the blame. Republicans in Congress have also fallen in love with big government. A 2003 study by the House Republican Study Committee found that if Congress had simply held spending growth to the rate of inflation since 1998, the budget would be balanced today—even with the President’s tax cuts. John Boehner, the new House Majority Leader, expressed dismay over this spending blitzkrieg and admitted, “We Republicans seem to have forgotten who we are, and why we’re here.”
Bush and the Republicans in Congress are dumping tidal waves of dollars into New Orleans to help rebuild. But so far the involvement by FEMA and other federal agencies has been a catastrophe. “All the best initiatives to help people,” says Rep. Bobby Jindal, the newly elected Republican from Louisiana, “are sponsored by private relief agencies. In a lot of ways, government has been an obstacle to rebuilding.” Yet, Mr. Bush is on schedule to spend at least $100 billion on the victims of the hurricane, which is at least $200,000 for every family that lost a home. After the terrible earthquake in San Francisco that demolished the city 100 years ago, and the Great Chicago Fire in the late 19th century, those cities were rebuilt to even greater splendor with hardly one thin dime of federal aid.
The result of this mentality is that this Republican Congress and this Republican President are spending at a faster pace than any Congress since before the days of Woodstock and the Miracle Mets. The chart below shows that Bush rivals LBJ as the biggest spending president since World War II.
How much, one wonders, is too much, for Republicans to want to spend? As a result of the current spending spree, Uncle Sam Inc. is the largest enterprise in the history of the civilized world. If you took all the spending that government does and just evenly divided it among all families of four in America, each family would be more than $42,000 richer. This is double the level of spending in 1960 and 14 times the amount government spent in 1900, even after adjusting for inflation. So the question American taxpayers should ask is: Does my family really get anywhere near $42,000 worth of services every year from city hall, state governments, and Congress?
No less than Milton Friedman, the revered Nobel Prize-winning economist, declares that this unbridled spending “is the single greatest deterrent to faster economic growth in the United States today.” Another Nobel Prize economist, James Buchanan, worries that by allowing government to grow so rapidly ahead of the pace of the private sector, we are “killing the goose of free enterprise that lays the golden eggs.”
And the new Republican Party is joining Democrats in the slaying.
Says John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union: “For the first time in many years we are seeing that Republicans are outspending the Democrats.” When I asked one of my good friends in Congress, Mike Pence of Indiana, a third-term congressman and a genuine anti-big government fiscal conservative, why Republicans were spending so much money, he shook his head in disgust. “I came here to Washington to get the government under control,” he lamented. “But every vote we’ve had has made government bigger. We rarely if ever vote to make government smaller.”
THIS ENORMOUS BUILD-UP of government has been what I call the virus of the Bush presidency. His profligacy and total disregard for spending money judiciously has given a free pass for Republicans in Congress to spend—even those who would normally spurn expansionist government. By contrast, these same Republicans were tight-fisted budget hawks during the Clinton presidency and would be savaging the checkbook diplomacy of Bush—if he were Clinton. “In light of George Bush’s big spending ways,” Bruce Bartlett writes in his new book on the Bush presidency, “Clinton now looks like Calvin Coolidge.”
Bush loyalists see things differently. My friend Fred Barnes writes in his new book Rebel-in-Chief that Bush is in reality Reagan’s natural successor—he cuts taxes, builds up national defense, promotes conservative social values. He concedes that Bush is a “big government conservative” but believes that this is a post-Reagan philosophy that bows to the wishes of the modern-day electorate. Some neoconservatives have urged 21st-century Republicans to make a separate peace with big government and to use the $2.5 trillion federal budget to advance what columnist David Brooks calls projects of “national greatness.” They have in mind a new generation of massive expenditure projects in the lineage of the Marshall Plan, the interstate highway system, and the creation of the national parks.
Others believe that Bush advances broad conservative and market-based policy goals by strategically buying votes with spending programs. Daniel Casse, a former presidential speechwriter, argues that “rather than focusing on the sheer size of government, Bush is focused on outcomes.” He signed the massive education bill to get testing; the Medicare drug bill to get health savings accounts; the tariffs on steel to win support from Pennsylvania and West Virginia congressmen on tax cuts. To be sure, even Reagan did some of this tactical horsetrading.
But that practice has become ruinously expensive under Bush. The latest Congressional Budget Office projections indicate that if spending remains on the course it is now, in 20 years the budget will consume about 30 percent of GDP on top of the 12 percent taken by states and localities. Welcome to France.
THE WORD BUSH USES MORE often than any other—by far—is freedom. But what the Bush Republicans haven’t come to grips with is that big government and freedom are mutually exclusive. Dollar by trillion dollar we are voluntarily giving up our liberties for a government that promises us a nanny-state blanket of protection from cradle to coffin. The truth is, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats can steer us to that future much more rapidly than Republicans can.
That is why the conservative movement must resist the advice of the neocons like David Brooks, who has written in the New York Times: “Reducing the size of government cannot be the governing philosophy for the next generation of conservatives.”
No, it MUST be. This is the fight for the soul of the party in the years ahead—and the stakes are just as high as they were during the fight in the 1970s and ‘80s when the Reagan Republicans who wanted to cut tax rates to grow the economy triumphed over the Eisenhower-Ford-Dole Republicans who resisted tax cuts and worshipped balanced budgets at all cost.
If Republicans continue to grow government at their current reckless pace, don’t be surprised if Hillary Clinton wins the White House in 2008 running to the right of Republicans on fiscal responsibility.
Stephen Moore is senior economics writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial board.