The Democrats and Small Government

I agree with David Frum that the future of the GOP majority depends, in part, on what the Democrats do—but I think it’s worth distinguishing between what Bill Clinton did, in 1996 and ‘98, and what the Democrats have failed to do ever since. Clinton moved the party to the right on economics, as David says, by embracing free trade and balanced budgets, but he also moved to the right on social issues—avoiding first-term debacles like gays-in-the-military and Jocelyn Elders, signing welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act, and embracing small-bore initiatives like school uniforms and the V-chip. This two-step enabled him to make inroads among affluent, socially-liberal voters, while also recapturing a chunk of the more socially-conservative “Reagan Democrats” and Bubba voters. Since then, however—and particularly in the post-9/11 era—the Democrats haven’t been able to find candidates who can make this two-step seem plausible, and so they’ve done a one-step instead, making further inroads among well-off social liberals while losing the white working-class voters who cast their ballots for Clinton.

If that change—if a Mark Warner figure emerges, say, who can articulate the “tough-on-terror/socially-moderate/fiscally-responsible” line more believably than Dean or Kerry or Pelosi —then I agree with David that the GOP coalition will be in a lot of trouble. But it will be in trouble because the Democrats will have managed to steal working-class “big-government” conservatives, not small-government conservatives, away from the Republican Party—by promising economic protectionism, perhaps, wedded to hawkish competence in foreign policy, and slightly less hostility to religion and traditional values at home. And it’s hard for me to see what such a Democratic Party will have to offer libertarians that it doesn’t offer already—beyond, perhaps, a brake on the expansion of executive power that’s taken place in the Bush era. (Though frankly, I think if a Democrat wants to win in ‘08, he or she will have to come out for wiretapping at some point during the campaign.) If you’re a libertarian who cares more about social issues than fiscal issues, then you should have been voting for Democrats for a while now; if you’re the reverse, there’s no way the Democrats are ever going to be a good choice. Divided government, maybe, is a way to rein in spending. But as long as the Democrats are the party of unions, minorities, big-government working-class voters, and converted Rockefeller Republicans (who are not, and never have been, in favor of small government, from John Lindsay down to Olympia Snowe) they will never offer a plausible home to anyone who cares about reducing the size of the federal budget.

With this in mind, I would also suggest that David Boaz’s fear—“that the Republican Party has shifted from a business-oriented party reaching out to social conservatives to a social-conservative party trying to hold on to business and economic conservatives”— misses the real point of the last six years, which is that economic conservatives and social conservatives have both been marginalized by business-class conservatism, which cares about neither abortion nor the free market, and is mainly interested in using the power of the purse to dole out corporate welfare. I understand that libertarians are annoyed by some of the Bush Administration’s symbolic gestures to the Christian Right—the Terri Schiavo intervention, say, or the Federal Marriage Initiative. But symbolism aside, social conservatives aren’t getting a markedly better deal from the GOP these days than small-government conservatives (how much money was spent on faith-based initiatives, compared to the Medicare prescription drug bill?), and both groups are getting shafted in favor of K Street conservatism. The Cato Institute and the Christian Coalition are never going to see eye to eye on everything, but they still have a lot of common ground —and a common enemy.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, bestselling author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum considers whether the time has come and gone for the small government heirs of Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich. His answer: “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.” Government slashing types have never been more than an active minority in the GOP, Frum argues, and there is little chance that Republicans going forward will repudiate the spirit of the big-government Bush agenda. The small-government conservative’s best hope is that, like the defunct Whigs and Progressives, elements of their ideas and ideals will survive as a part of the political consensus.

Response Essays

  • 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.”

  • 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.”

  • 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.”