Republicans and the Flight of Opportunity

A Roman poet composed this riddle 1700 years ago:

I am a goddess seldom found and known to few. I am ever flying. I am bald behind that none may catch me [by the hair] as I flee. Remorse bears me company. When I have flown away, she is retained by those who did not grasp me as I passed.

The “goddess” was Opportunity—and conservatives and Republicans today can appreciate the poignancy of the poet’s description of her departure.

In the 1990s, the newly elected Republican congressional majority enjoyed what we can now see was the fairest opportunity in half a century to reduce the size and cost of the federal government:

* They had won a stunning and unexpected mid-term victory against a stunned and demoralized Democratic administration elected two years before by only 42% of the vote.

* They were backed by a bipartisan consensus that the huge deficits of the early 1990s had to be brought under control – without any further repeat of the tax increases of 1991 and 1993.

* The Cold War had ended, making possible substantial reductions in defense spending.

* The baby boomers were entering their peak earning years, with the first retirements still almost two decades away – leaving plenty of time for any necessary adjustments to retirement programs.

* The Soviet Union had collapsed; China was opening; and the prestige of free-market solutions was rocketing to an unprecedented apex.

* A huge stock market boom was gathering—creating an enormous potential constituency for a shift from defined benefit to defined contribution approaches to pensions and health care.

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.

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 retirement of the baby boomers is now closely pending—and the time in which they could make adjustments to altered programs has drastically shrunk. The Medicare program has been vastly expanded by the Bush administration—and Social Security reform collapsed without so much as a bill ever being introduced into Congress. Defense budgets, which dropped from 6% of GDP in the mid-1980s to 3% in the late 1990s, have recovered to about 4.5% of GDP and will likely remain at that level for many years to come. And deficits in the $400 billion range not only preclude future tax cuts—but also raise real doubts about the sustainability of the Bush tax cuts.

Meanwhile, the pressures for even further expansion of government are gathering. Health care costs bear ever more heavily on the middle-class: Rising health burdens help explain why wage growth has stalled despite strong overall economic growth. The ranks of the uninsured continue to grow.

The tax bite is pre-programmed to gulp down ever greater portions of individual income. The Bush tax cuts expire in 2010, and the Alternative Minimum Tax applies to ever more millions of upper-middle-class families.

The free-trade momentum of the 1990s has likewise evaporated. American policy has turned in a protectionist direction since 2001: steel tariffs, the abuse of “mad cow” disease to bar Canadian beef from US markets, and so on. Populist-nationalist governments have come to power in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, and (likely) soon in Mexico, dooming President Bush’s once-bright hopes for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Whether you interpret these facts, as say Bruce Bartlett does, as a deliberate betrayal of the Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich limited government agenda – or as an unfortunate series of unintended consequences—the result is more or less the same:

The fairest chance to achieve the limited-government agenda passed with only very limited conservative success.

The state is growing again—and it is pre-programmed 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.

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 guest worker 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.

So what does this mean for limited-government conservatives?

Some in the Cato world may welcome the prospect of a small-government third-party insurgency, or even some kind of rapprochement with DLC-style moderate Democrats.

Let’s examine those options in reverse order.

Different kinds of small-government conservatives have different priorities. Some care most about economic liberties, some about lifestyle libertarianism, some about anti-interventionist foreign policies. Small-government conservatives of the latter two varieties may find coalition with Democrats more agreeable than coalition with Republicans. But choosing a different coalition partner does not emancipate you from the pains and difficulties of coalition politics.

As for third parties, more often than not they have proven rapid exit ramps to defeat and obscurity, as Millard Fillmore’s nativists discovered in 1856 and George Wallace’s segregationists in 1968. William Rusher urged Ronald Reagan to run as an independent in 1976—and it’s telling that America’s most politically successful small-government conservative refused even to consider the idea.

So what does that leave?

Two things I’d say.

One is memory.

Small-government conservatism re-emerged as a potent political force in the mid-1970s, a time when the US and the world appeared to be hurtling toward a statist, social-democratic future. We succeeded in halting the plunge and redirecting the US and many of the other western democracies onto a healthier path. That is an accomplishment, and an enduring one: For all the threat we now face from a demographically driven expansion of big government, it is a very different and far less severe threat than the ideologically driven expansion of three decades ago. Sometimes intellectual movements are called to life to save their countries at a time of challenge—and then gradually fade away as their work is done, as the Whigs faded away in the 1850s or the Progressives after the First World War. It may be that the future of conservatism is to recognize that it belongs to the past.

The second possibility is that conservatism will live on as a tendency within both parties rather than as a compact and self-conscious movement in control of one of them. And again the parallel may be with the Whigs and Progressives.

Long after the Whigs went out of business as a party, their ideas and preferences exerted influence on American politics. A Republican President and Congress gave the country the nonpartisan civil service the Whigs had wanted; a Democratic President and Congress restored a central bank in 1913. Progressive ideals of government by experts, scientific management, and government responsibility for the health and welfare of the population have likewise become the common inheritance of both modern parties.

Might not the same be true of the small-government conservative beliefs championed by Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich? It may not be the future we expected for ourselves—but what future is?

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • The Forecast is Grim – So What Are We Going to Do About It? by Bruce Bartlett

    Bruce Bartlett, author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, agrees with Frum’s gloomy assessment of the prospects for small government and argues that conservatives and libertarians often compound the problem by failing to understand the magnitude and political intractability of the government’s non-discretionary entitlement programs. Slashing government is not “as easy as waving a magic wand.” Bartlett warns of the danger of resigning in frustration and calls for “a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals.”

  • Renewing the Mandate by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam

    Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argue that although a renewed push for smaller government isn’t in the cards, Republicans can realistically hope to win reforms that promote “freedom, self-reliance, and individual initiative”—values at the core of the small-government movement. In the current climate, Douthat and Salam write, “simply calling for the rollback of government appeals only to those already in the winner’s circle of American life…” So, they argue, Republicans “need to accept that government will remain large in the short run … while pursuing long-range strategies that will produce a more opportunity-friendly, less statist America.”

  • Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish by David Boaz

    Cato executive vice president David Boaz argues that the Republicans have failed Reagan’s vision, offering their own brand of meddlesome statism as an alternative to the Democrats’. Although there is in the U.S. a constituency for limited government, Boaz argues, it needs a leader. The task for “advocates of liberty and limited government” is to “make ready the ideas, the platform, the networks that could serve a political leader who wanted to take on the task of clearing away the late 20th century’s accumulated burden of bureaucratic systems, unfunded liabilities, overextended military commitments, and usurpations of the responsibilities of free citizens.”

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