This article appeared in the February issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.
“Can we, who man the ship of state, deny it is somewhat out of control?”
Ronald Reagan asked this question less than two minutes into his first address to Congress in 1981, excoriating a government willing to mortgage the future of its citizenry via a national debt of $1 trillion. Reagan invited the American people to visualize this “incomprehensible” sum not as a string of numbers but as the cold, hard cash it actually was. “If you had a stack of thousand-dollar bills in your hand only 4 inches high, you’d be a millionaire,” he said. “A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high.”
The Congress Reagan confronted with these words was a much different monster from the one before us today. During his first term, Republicans held tenuous control over the Senate, but Democrats controlled the House by nearly 100 seats. It took sheer will and political guile for Reagan to pursue fiscal conservatism against those odds. Even then it wasn’t a perfect revolution. The budget was still bloated and missteps were made, but the ultimate goal remained clear and the rhetoric was pure if somewhat tainted in practice. Reagan changed the paradigm of politics in America with a seismic boom that was still reverberating when Bill Clinton, desperately seeking the “third way,” declared the era of Big Government over.
But has the Republican Party lived up to this legacy? It takes a bold partisan to make such a claim. Consider: In November, the Republican majority in Congress passed legislation on a near-party line vote raising the government’s debt limit to $8.18 trillion, a figure close to 70 percent the size of the entire U.S. economy — at the urging of a Republican president regarded as the ideological descendant of Reagan. Shortly thereafter, the White House issued a statement “commending” Congress for this action. There was no mention in it of a now 500-mile-high stack of thousand-dollar bills. If this Captain believes the ship of state was out of control, he wasn’t letting on.
“In politics you get to be one of two things: A pleasant surprise or a bitter disappointment,” former House Majority Leader Dick Armey said. “This Congress is on the brink of becoming a bitter disappointment.”
IN SEVERAL POST-ELECTION INTERVIEWS, conservative congressmen, senators, and political operatives — forming what Howard Dean might call the Republican wing of the Republican Party — were surprisingly candid about the failures of the last four years. “The party has a problem,” Indiana Congressman Mike Pence said. “We have self-styled conservatives endorsing Big Government Republicanism with a straight face. We should already know where that road goes. It’s the road to serfdom.”
The mantra of these true believers, newly invigorated by what they see as a red state mandate for a conservative agenda is, “It will be different this time.” Conservative Republicans are promising a series of bold reforms both in policy and procedure — whether the president is on board or not.
Nevertheless, conservative mandate or not, it is undeniably the case that a large segment of the Republican caucus has not been voting in favor of fiscal discipline. It is an open question whether well-intentioned reformers and conservative stalwarts will change their votes in the aftermath of an election that saw them rewarded for their recent behavior by voters, not chastened.
Rep. Pence pleaded mitigating circumstances, and urged fiscal conservatives to join the battle rather than lose heart. “Make no mistake, for conservatives the disappointments of the last four years were driven largely by the desire of many members, even strong conservatives, to support the president in his re-election effort,” Pence explained. “After September 11 there was a sense of immediacy and tragedy that took over and created a lack of focus. Now that ensuring the president’s re-election is no longer a factor, I foresee a return to a more healthy equilibrium between branches of government along the lines of what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.”
Criticism of Republicans’ fiscal laxity over the last four years has been muted within the party. Both the September 11 attacks and the resulting War on Terror have been frequently invoked in place of an honest debate about the state of the budget. While national security concerns have certainly played a role in the growth of the deficit, it is inaccurate to attribute all of that growth to the war. Even bills dealing directly with Iraq or terrorism have been larded with pork. Bush’s funding for national defense mirrors Reagan’s, with outlays increasing around 20 percent. But Veronique de Rugy noted for a Cato Institute report, “Whereas Reagan was able to reduce non-defense discretionary outlays by 14 percent, Bush will have overseen a rise of 18 percent — a whopping 32 percent difference between the two men.”
There is a historical precedent for cutting non-defense spending when the nation is at war that the Republicans could honor. During World War II and the Korean War, for example, discretionary spending was cut by 22 and 25 percent, respectively.
“We’re at a unique moment in the history of big government,” Pence said. “The national media turned this election into a referendum on conservative principles. If Bush had lost they would have blamed conservatives for dragging him down. Now we have a president re-elected by a strong majority, and Republican control of both the House and Senate. It’s a perfect storm. Who knows when another one will come along again? The time to act is now.”
THE RESPECTABLE DETERMINATION and moral bearing of some House Republicans notwithstanding, rank-and-file fiscal conservatives have reasonable cause for doubt. This was an administration, after all, that began with a promising tax cut, but quickly backslided, with the full complicity of many congressional Republicans, into a smorgasbord of government giveaways including increases in perpetually useless farm subsidies; the largest increase in federal education spending — 52 percent — in more than a quarter century, written by Ted Kennedy, no less; and the prescription drug benefit, the first new entitlement in 40 years. Discretionary spending under Bush has also been significantly higher than under Clinton.
Outspending liberals has been the order of the day for the Bush administration, and, yet, if the recent campaign has shown anything, liberals remain unimpressed and unsated. That the Democrats spewed vitriol at Bush for not spending more on their favorite programs, combined with John Kerry’s promises to add at least a trillion dollars to the federal debt if elected, shows the Republican Party, like the Soviet Union in its arms race with the U.S., cannot win a spending war with Democrats.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online