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BUCK WILDHOW REPUBLICANS BROKE THE BANK AND BECAME THE PARTY OF BIG GOVERNMENT
By STEPHEN SLIVINSKI
NELSON CURRENTCopyright © 2007 Stephen Slivinski
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt sounds like a bad joke, even by Washington standards.
How many genuine fiscal conservatives are left in the Republican Party?
Punch line: Not enough to fill a small, dank, windowless room in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building on Independence Avenue.
That's where, in early May 2004, a small band of Republican congressmen met to lament the fiscal profligacy that characterized the modern GOP. Once upon a time, the group would meet in the ornate rooms of the Capitol building or even the cushy splendor of the Speaker's office. Now they meet in a basement like a band of insurgents. All they lack is a password and a secret handshake.
The meeting attendees were some of the core members of a group called the Republican Study Committee. In the shorthand of DC political wonks, they are known as the RSC. The group was created in 1973 by conservatives in the House of Representatives who wanted to declare their independence from President Richard Nixon who, with the assistance of House minority leader Gerald Ford, was cutting deals with the big spenders in Congress.
The RSC banded together again when George H.W. Bush broke his "no new taxes" pledge. They revolted-albeit unsuccessfully-against the budget that Bush had brokered with Democrats which led to one of the biggest tax hikes in US history. The fight put them at odds with many senior Republicans who supported Bush's scheme.
Today, over thirty years after its inception, the RSC still exists. Its members continue to be alienated by a Republican president who-with the aid and even encouragement of many Republicans in Congress-has embraced Big Government and expanded the welfare state beyond the dreams of even the most starry-eyed liberal Democrat.
It's funny how history repeats itself.
The historical parallels weren't lost on the attendees of the May 2004 basement meeting. Some of them, like Jeb Hensarling of Texas, were among the newest members of Congress, motivated to come to Washington to fight for the principles of limited government. Other attendees were more senior but still committed to the same vision, like John Shadegg of Arizona, then the chairman of the RSC. The son of Stephen Shadegg, long-time friend and speechwriter of Barry Goldwater, John was first elected to Congress ten years earlier in what became known as the "Republican Revolution." He was among the last of a dwindling breed. Of the seventy-three House GOP freshmen who stormed Capitol Hill after the historic electoral victory of 1994, less than half were still serving in the House ten years later.
A few of the Republican Revolutionaries were still in Congress, but on the other side of the Capitol, as senators. Others had decided it was just too tough to win a fight against the forces of Big Government and had left. Others eventually had been defeated for reelection. Still others kept their vow to return to civilian life after serving no more than a few terms. And when their congressional careers were over, these former members of Congress didn't have much to show for their valiant efforts. Mark Sanford-current governor of South Carolina and one of the House members who kept his promise to serve only three terms-summed up the sentiments of many fellow conservatives shortly before he left office in 1999: "[You] would hate to say that you spent six years of your life at a job and at the end of it government was spending more and taxing more than when you came. But that's where we are."
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Republicans had won some fights against the big spenders after winning control of Congress in 1994. But congressional leaders retreated from the battle for smaller government after only two years in the majority.
Then, in 2000, the Republicans won united control of Congress and the White House, a feat the party had not accomplished since the 1952 elections. Many conservatives and supporters of limited government believed that smaller government-a Republican promise since Ronald Reagan sat in the Oval Office-was just around the corner.
Instead, the drive to scale back the federal government sputtered and died. Historic budget surpluses turned into deficits. The president and the congressional GOP leadership-all of whom still publicly claimed to be in favor of limiting government-expanded government faster than at any time since the 1960s.
While the RSC members were meeting in a basement that spring day in 2004 to discuss how to slap some sense into their party brethren, President George W. Bush was running for reelection by standing proudly on a record of huge increases in the size of government. Press release after press release from the Bush-Cheney campaign boasted of the two major expansions of Big Government it had engineered: the brand-new and fabulously expensive drug benefit in Medicare-the biggest expansion of that program since its inception in the 1960s-and the doubling of the budget of the Department of Education, a cabinet agency twice slated for extinction in the heady days of the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions.
To many fiscal conservatives-then as now-it seems the biggest impediments to change are no longer the Democrats in Congress. Instead, the enemies are Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Gone are the days of victories, moral or otherwise, over Big Government. As one Los Angeles Times reporter put it: "No longer are Republicans arguing with Democrats about whether government should be big or small. Instead they are at odds over what kind of big government the US should have." Former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich lamented to a New York Times reporter: "Republicans have lost their way."
Supporters of smaller government cheered when President Clinton declared in his 1996 State of the Union address, "The era of big government is over." Today it has been replaced by something far worse: the era of super-sized government. And for that we have the Republicans to thank.
By the summer of 2005, the members of the RSC-that group of rebels who were convening in a basement on a beautiful spring day in 2004-would begin fighting their own party leaders in an attempt to steer the GOP back to the principles of limited government. That fight may end up defining the Republican Party for years to come.
A PARTY OF SMALL GOVERNMENT NO MORE
The fiscal damage of the George W. Bush years is an awful legacy for the Republican Party to stand by as they head into a critical set of congressional and presidential elections. Total federal government spending grew by 45% in Bush's first term. After adjusting the total growth in the federal budget by length of time in office and inflation, so far George W. Bush is the biggest spending full-term president since Lyndon B. Johnson.
In terms of spending on domestic programs, Bush looks less like Reagan and more like Nixon, another Republican president who prided himself on expanding government dramatically. Defense spending has shot up, too. But much of the Bush defense build-up is not related to the war on terror, the invasion of Afghanistan, or the war in Iraq.
Bush has not been alone in the spending binge, of course. The Republican-controlled Congress has been fully complicit and indeed bears much of the blame since it controls the purse strings. The GOP congressional majority started out strong in its first few years. It made some progress in downsizing the federal government by cutting spending for the first time since Ronald Reagan was in office. Yet, even these small victories were short-lived. Just one year after the GOP took control of Congress, spending on domestic programs began to creep upward again.
Voters have been getting increasingly disgusted with the Republicans. In March 2004, the George Washington University Battleground poll revealed that 47% of the likely voters surveyed believed that the Democrats in Congress would do a better job than the Republicans at "holding down federal spending." Only 42% thought Republicans would be better. In other words, over half of those polled were registering a vote of "no confidence" in the ability of the GOP to shrink government, a promise the GOP was so strongly connected with in the public mind for at least the past twenty-five years. Since the 2004 elections, the poll numbers have only gotten worse for the GOP. By February 2006, only 33% of likely voters trusted Bush to keep the spending down, and only 36% trusted Republicans in Congress to do so.
A GOP defender might argue that these polls are skewed in favor of those who are already hostile to Republican fiscal policy. Yet, in each of these polls, Republicans were trusted by more than 50% of the respondents to keep taxes low. In other words, many of the same people who trust Republicans to cut taxes-and who tend to like Republicans for that reason-don't think the GOP will stop its spending binge.
These poll results are not anomalies, either. Other polls show a similar decline in the approval ratings of Republicans on budget issues. The Wall Street Journal reported that its poll, taken in conjunction with NBC News, found that voters felt Democrats could control spending better. In fact, Democrats had a twelve-point edge (34% for the Democrats versus 22% for the GOP). The last time such a margin existed was in 1994 and 1995. Republicans came out on top in those polls.
It's not that the Democrats have shrugged off the mantle of big-spending liberalism. They haven't, and they probably won't. What the polls seem to be saying is this: In the minds of a majority of likely voters, the Grand Old Party is no longer a serious alternative for voters who want to restrain government.
MANY VOTERS DON'T LIKE BIG GOVERNMENT
If Republicans have an image problem, it's of their own making. An administration and a congressional majority that were finally supposed to make some lasting headway in the battle against Big Government have instead built a party of Big Government. Voters are now stuck with a choice between the party of Big Government (the Republicans) and the party of Even Bigger Government (the Democrats).
Yet many people seem to prefer another option: a party of smaller government. More than a majority of people, when asked, just don't seem to like Big Government. Polling expert Karlyn Bowman compiled all the results from ABC News/Washington Post polls and CBS News/New York Times polls going back to the mid-1970s. Each poll included a version of this question: "If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services or a bigger government providing more services?" Notice the general upward trend in those who prefer smaller government in the following figure.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen asked a similar poll question in February 2004 and found that 64% of Americans said they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes. Perhaps the most surprising finding in his poll was that this preference cuts across virtually all demographic lines. Men prefer it (67%), and so do women (62%). The majority of people over the age of 30 do (52%), and even more of those over 65 do also (70%). Most Republican voters do (79%), and so do a majority of Democrats (53%). Even the racial divide doesn't seem so unbridgeable when you discover that 61% of white voters prefer smaller government, as do 52% of nonwhite voters. The only exception to this pattern is voters who identify themselves as "very liberal," and even then, 40% of them prefer smaller government.
The Gallup polling company has been asking people an interesting question since the 1960s: Which institution do you consider to be the biggest threat to the country-Big Government, Big Business, or Big Labor (a.k.a. labor unions). Big Labor doesn't register much anymore. But Big Government has been seen as the biggest threat by 50% or more of Americans in virtually every year since 1983. Between 1995 and 2000, around 65% of Americans consistently regarded Big Government as the biggest threat.
Big Business has been in the 20% range for most of the past forty years, except for 2002 when, at the height of the Enron scandal, it was seen as the biggest threat to the country by 38% of respondents. However, Big Government was still seen as an even bigger threat that year by 47% of those polled. Once the Wall Street scandals passed, the threat rankings for business sank back to the mid-20s, while Big Government hopped right back up to 57% in 2004.
It seems there is a large constituency that would respond favorably to a political party that can enunciate a clear program to make the federal government smaller, less powerful, and less intrusive. It's those sorts of voters-Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike-who catapulted Reagan to the White House. Those voters are still up for grabs. The GOP cannot take them for granted anymore.
THE CESSPOOL BECOMES A HOT TUB
A slow de-evolution of the GOP began once the party won a majority in Congress. Instead of advancing the cause of smaller government, the Republicans eventually regressed into a party devoted solely to tightening their grip on political power, without regard to the principles that hoisted them to majority status in the first place. The GOP today has largely made peace with the federal programs it once wanted to end.
When speaking to conservative audiences, elected Republicans wave the flag of smaller government. But behind the scenes, they have already effectively surrendered the battle. Sure, Big Government is bad, they admit in private, but only when the other guys are in charge. When Republicans are at the helm, they can rationalize keeping Big Government around. They think everything will be all right as long as they are the ones holding the reins.
Look at the budgets the Republicans have proposed and enacted over the past five years and you will discover that they don't resemble a platform for stripping government down to size. Instead, they resemble something that late-night huckster Matthew Lesko would devise. You might recognize Lesko as the man infamous for the commercials in which he wears a jacket adorned with giant question marks. In these commercials, he hawks the books he has published-titles like Gobs and Gobs of Free Stuff and Free Money for Everyone. The most recent edition of his book, Free Money to Change Your Life, runs over 1,000 pages. The books contain extensive lists of federal programs that dispense your tax money. Paging through them gives you a hint of how vast and expensive the federal government has grown. Republicans have eagerly hastened that growth.
Ronald Reagan liked to work a fable into some of his speeches. It went something like this: When fiscal conservatives look at Washington DC, they see a cesspool. When they are elected on the promise of changing the system, they finally get to the nation's capital and are soon seduced by Big Government. Suddenly, Washington no longer seems like a cesspool. Now it seems more like a hot tub.
This book is an attempt to make some sense of how Washington DC started to feel like a hot tub to so many members of the Republican Party. It does not endeavor to deliver an authoritative history of the GOP over the past twenty-five years. Rather, it seeks to discover how the party of Reagan-once guided by the promise of cutting government back to its core constitutional functions-eventually lost its head. It aims to put the current Republican tailspin into context by recounting critical episodes that spurred the transformation of the GOP into the party of Big Government.
This book will also explore some important questions that should be considered by anyone who prefers smaller government to the hulking behemoth we have now. For instance, would a Republican loss of the White House or Congress in an upcoming election be a bad thing for fiscal conservatives? It depends. The answer, startling as it may seem, might be "no." Maybe spending some time in the political wilderness would be good for Republicans. Or maybe the mere threat of electoral loss will help the GOP find its bearings and change course before it loses entirely the trust of limited-government supporters.
One thing is for sure. A struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party is brewing. My hope is that this book will help you understand why.
Excerpted from BUCK WILD by STEPHEN SLIVINSKI Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Slivinski. Excerpted by permission.
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