And to give the GOP due credit, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, Republicans did try—and to some extent succeeded—to make some deep changes. They reformed farm programs, slowed the growth of overall government spending, and struggled to raise the individual contribution to Medicare.The opportunity for limited government conservatives has passed.
But we all know how the story ended. Bloodied and battered by the government shutdown and the impeachment battle, the congressional Republicans shifted course after 1998. Medicare reform was abandoned; spending accelerated.
And this change of course was ratified by the whole party in the nomination contest of 1999-2000, when George W. Bush swept to a crushing triumph by campaigning as a “compassionate conservative” opposed to budget-cutting and committed to maintaining Medicare and Medicaid in more or less their existing form. In September 1999, he condemned congressional Republican attempts to curb the Earned Income Tax Credit as “balancing their budget on the backs of the poor.” In the following general election, Bush committed himself to adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
At the time, these maneuvers looked to many Republicans like wise and necessary adjustments to political reality. And since Bush had also committed himself to broad tax cuts, free trade, and Social Security reform, many gambled that the his self-described “different kind” of conservatism would nonetheless balance out as a favorable sequel to Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich limited government conservatism.
This assessment has obviously proven wrong.
The fairest chance to achieve the limited-government agenda passed with only very limited conservative success.The reason for the failure?
The state is growing again—and it is preprogrammed to carry on growing. Health spending will rise, pension spending will rise, and taxes will rise.
Now I still continue to hope that the Republican party will lean against these trends. But there’s a big difference between being the party of less government and a party of small government. It’s one thing to try to slow down opponents as they try to enact their vision of society into law. It’s a very different thing to have a vision of one’s own.
And the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.
There are many reasons for this, but let me mention the customary three.You may notice something interesting in the above. Frum all but admits that the limited government policies of CATO will not have a universal appeal. The best they can ever hope to do is to block as much as they can, the normal actions of a minority party. Also note his condemnation of the "K Street Project" and Tom DeLay.
First, while small-government conservatism remains an important faction within the Republican party, it is only a faction. When Republicans held the minority in Congress, the small-government faction could act as an important blocking group against big-government over-reaching—as happened for example with Hillarycare in 1994 or the Carter energy plan in 1978. But when the Republicans won their majority and the small-government faction tried to enact an affirmative agenda, suddenly we discovered that we were not strong enough to enact a program by ourselves – and had instead rendered ourselves vulnerable to blocking action by others. Which is how it happened that the president’s bid for trade promotion authority in 2001 was hijacked by protectionists, and how his hope for Medicare reform ended up leaving behind only the new prescription drug benefit.
Second, I think it’s been fairly established now that the Republican party responds far more attentively to the practical needs of business constituencies than to the abstract principles of free-marketeers. Tom Delay’s “K Street Project” attempted to harness the might of the business lobbying community to Republican goals. It ended instead by subordinating the Republican party to the wishes of the business lobbying community. Which is how it happened that Republicans worked a lot harder to ensure that the prescription drug benefit relieved businesses of the burden of their past prescription drug promises than to protect taxpayers—or why the Republican Senate has been willing to take much greater political risks for immigration amnesty and guestworker programs than it did for Social Security personal accounts.
Third, for the GOP to reinvent itself as a limited-government would require it to repudiate much or maybe close to all of the domestic agenda of the Bush administration. That has happened before: The Reaganites did it to the Nixon/Ford legacy. But that happened only after the greatest political scandal of the 20th century had removed or discredited much of the previous generation of party leadership, and at a time when the country was trending rightward ideologically anyway. Those conditions do not look likely to repeat themselves. Whatever happens in 2006 and 2008, the Bush/Rove operation will retain enormous residual strength – enough certainly to deter credible candidates from running as critics of Bush in the way that Ronald Reagan ran as a critic of Nixon and Ford. And as one surveys the available political talent, one sees that most of the governors and senators who look like plausible presidential material have already committed themselves to some form or another of Bush-style compromise with activist government. And since the country seems to have begun trending leftward in the mid-1990s, it’s hard to count many votes for a Reagan redux even if one were somehow to reappear.
Tom Delay’s “K Street Project” attempted to harness the might of the business lobbying community to Republican goals. It ended instead by subordinating the Republican party to the wishes of the business lobbying community.I couldn't have said it better myself.
Also in the series we will hear from Bruce Bartlett, author of the controversial book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy; political writers Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, proprietors of The American Scene blog, and joint authors of a forthcoming book on "Sam's Club Republicans"; and David Boaz, executive vice-president of the Cato Institute.