Is GOP Embracing Big Government?

Is the leadership of the Republican Party abandoning the party’s long-standing commitment to limiting the size and power of the federal government? Some national conservative leaders fear that with Republican elected officials understandably focused on winning the war on terrorism, they have forgotten that they were elected also to fight big government. Support by the Bush Administration and the congressional leadership for a new federal entitlement in the form of a Medicare drug benefit, large increases in the Department of Education, and additional spending on Clintonite programs such as the make-work Americorps program are just some examples conservatives cite when complaining about the failure of a federal establishment controlled by Republicans to restrain the growth of government. Some prominent conservatives warned that the GOP’s acquiescence in, and in some cases active embrace of, big government could invite a backlash from the party’s traditional political base. Distracted by War “It’s sure got me worried,” said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R.-Tex.), now head of Citizens for a Sound Economy. “It used to be that good policy makes good politics. Now, when it comes to this President’s support of the Medicare bill with its prescription drug package, it appears to be a case of believing bad policy makes good politics. Democrats have been successful in the past by pretending to be us. Now, we may end up pretending to be them.” Asked if he would have broken with Bush on the drug benefit and increasing Americorps if he were still in the House Republican leadership, Armey said, “I’m lucky I’m not leader today.” Conservative radio talk show host and presidential son Michael Reagan, who once told HUMAN EVENTS he thought President George W. Bush was more like President Reagan than the senior President Bush, said of recent behavior by President Bush and the Republican Congress, “They forgot they won the last election, and will win the next one.” Asked if he felt Bush and the Republican Congress had abandoned the limited government credo, David Keene, national chairman of the American Conservative Union, replied without hesitation: “Yes.” Keene, a campaign aide to Ronald Reagan in 1976 and the elder Bush in 1980, told us he still believes “that the Bush who ran for President and serves as President is a good man, certainly much more conservative than his father. He’s made some excellent appointments, such as Tommy Thompson as secretary of Health and Human Services and Elaine Chao, who is quite possibly the most effective conservative secretary of Labor since the Cabinet department was formed. He’s dogged about the things he cares about, such as tax cuts and appointing judges.” But, Keene added, “He’s been distracted by world events and thus has let the liberals in Congress from both parties have free rein on domestic issues. Had there not been 9-11, the President would be more focused on these things and it might be very different.” James Miller, President Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget who until recently headed Citizens for a Sound Economy, expressed sentiments similar to Keene’s. President Bush, he said, “is committed to limited government, but he’s in a difficult situation. It grows more and more difficult to change the spending pattern of Congress because there is always the temptation of any elected official to expand the public sector. There are always plans to reduce spending, but Congress won’t do that. It’s very difficult politically to lose what you have already.” Miller likened Bush’s current situation—in which he is focusing on fighting the war on terrorism while accepting domestic spending increases—”to my President, Ronald Reagan, who was willing to swallow big deficits in order to get his national defense buildup and win the Cold War.” Veteran conservative activist Paul Weyrich said, “The Republican Party in Washington, D.C. has given up on the issue of limited government and, with the exception of a handful of Members on the House Republican Study Committee, they are thrilled with their capacity to spend their way to continued governance and their capacity to take away issues from the Democrats.” “Where are the vetoes of spending measures?” Weyrich asked. “There hasn’t been a single one of them.” But Weyrich added “there are places outside of Washington, and not an insignificant number of them, in which limited government is still a powerful issue. [Republican] Governors Bill Owens [Colorado] and Tim Pawlenty [Minnesota] are doing great things to cut spending and hold the line on government. Even in Maryland, [Republican Gov.] Bob Ehrlich says he supports a ten per cent reduction in the budgets of all state agencies and that he’ll even close some of them down.” Cato Institute President Ed Crane recalled that “in 1980, where we had a President elected making clear his belief that government was the problem, in 2000, we elected a President who has yet to criticize a single government program and believes you can solve problems by throwing money at them.” Crane said that at the same point in Reagan’s first term, “the total increase in government spending was 4% total for three years; today, the increase in spending is 30% for three years.” Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) President Grover Norquist is hopeful the Republicans can get back to their limited government roots. Speaking to me the day before ATR released a study showing it takes 193 working days for American workers to pay for taxes and regulations at the state and federal levels (four-and-one half more days than it took last year), Norquist did not deny that the issue of rolling back government spending has been suffering neglect from Republicans. But “while the conservative movement has drawn the line on taxes—correctly—it has not yet figured out how to draw the line on cutting spending,” he said. “And I will agree that the President is [too] focused on winning the war to do much about it. But if groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers give spending the same attention and commitments they have given the issue of cutting taxes, then perhaps the cause of rolling back government will be revived.” For now, many conservative Republicans remain worried about the overall trend: Their party’s in power and government just keeps on growing.