Streetcar Line

Limited Government, Expanded Popularity

Yes, fiscal rectitude wins votes for Republicans, as the last 25 years have confirmed.

By 12.18.08

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This is one of those "just for the record" columns. Forget eloquence; this is straightforward information to help defend the cause of real conservatives -- which by definition means "limited government conservatives," which is a redundancy made necessary by the bizarre proliferation of those who claim that "big government conservatism" isn't an obnoxious contradiction in terms.

The question is, what is the record for claiming that advocacy of limited government is a political winner?

The answer is: Abundant political history, specifically including the experience of the Gingrich years that so many falsely claim proves the opposite.

Ronald Reagan, obviously, campaigned strongly for limited government. Despite claims to the contrary, he delivered. His first round of budget cuts, in 1981, were substantial. Rescissions from already passed appropriations meant that domestic discretionary budget authority actually dropped by $6 billion in 1981, and in 1982 the same category dropped by another $21 billion, which was a whopping 15 percent of the total. Budget authority grew by just $7 billion the year after that, leaving it still $20 billion below its 1981 level. It would take another two years for domestic discretionary budget authority to catch up to where it started -- and even that level represented a serious cut in real (after-inflation) dollars.

Yet Reagan was elected with majorities in 49 states, and his vice president was elected to succeed him after a second term that was almost as stringent on such appropriations. Sure, entitlements kept growing throughout Reagan's two terms, but that was merely through formulas already baked into the cake before he took office. The fact remains that Reagan's austerity on annual spending items not only failed to dent his popularity, but quite arguably added to it.

As soon as Reagan left office, domestic discretionary budget outlays began rising at a rapid clip. From $180 billion in 1989, they rose to $260 billion just four years later. Result: The third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, based entirely on two issues, reform and spending control. Further result: The presidency of Bill Clinton.

Just two years later, the Gingrich brigades rode the same two Perot issues, ethics reform and balanced budgets, to a majority. Bill Clinton was chastened enough to declare that "the era of big government is over" -- a declaration he had to make because it was politically popular to do so. But even though he fought the spending cuts, hard, behind the scenes, Republicans delivered just as Reagan had done. Gingrich himself has written several times (in his books) about what happened next: My then-boss, Bob Livingston (who ranks with Bill Archer of Texas as the most underappreciated but consequential heroes of the Gingrich era), took controls of the Appropriations Committee and bravely doubled the ante on a rescissions package during that first winter and spring. Domestic discretionary budget authority dropped from $262 billion in 1994 to a post-rescission $249 billion in 1995, and $247 billion in 1996. They rose only to $257 billion in 1997 (still below the mark of three years earlier), while the growth of entitlement spending also was slowed and while welfare reform was passed, promising what seemed then to be even more austerity.

I SAW FIRSTHAND what happened during those first two years. I saw Republicans clearly win the budget public relations battle in the winter and spring of 1995, and hold their own during the summer. I saw the rough political equilibrium continue all the way into late November or early December, as long as the "budget shutdown" battle involved only discretionary programs. Then, at the urging of California's Bill Thomas, Gingrich tied a small Medicare issue in with the shutdown battle, whereas the two issues had been studiously kept segregated before. Clinton pounced. The political tide turned. And even then, the ultimate battle could have gone either way. But as moderate Republicans caved, so did Clinton, finally accepting a slightly modified plan that everybody agreed would lead to a balanced budget for the first time in decades.

And what happened to Republican congressional majorities in 1996? Next to nothing. A few seats lost, but the GOP still maintained control in both chambers. And then, right up into September of 1998, with domestic discretionary spending growth still having been kept within reasonable bounds, all the prognosticators were expecting GOP House gains of as many as 30 seats. But House Republicans overplayed their impeachment hand by insisting on rules for impeachment proceedings that were unnecessarily stringent; in return for holding the moderates in line on those rules, Gingrich allowed a huge jump in discretionary budget authority.

The capitulation on such spending was astonishing: from $270 billion to $307 billion in one year. And retribution was swift: Although nobody in print (but me) foresaw GOP losses even as late as election eve, House Republicans lost five seats in 1998 -- a stunning under-performance in expectations of between 20 and 35 seats. What had happened? Disgusted fiscal conservatives stayed home in droves; that's what.

One can make an excellent case that GOP House gains in 2000 and 2002 were driven by Clinton fatigue and then by post 9/11 rallying around the president. But the disgust with ever-spiraling spending out in the hinterlands grew and then metastasized throughout the middle years of this decade. Washington might not have recognized it, but those of us outside the elite cultural echo chamber (I was in Mobile, Alabama, at the time) heard it not just among politicos but out on the street, quite regularly and quite vociferously. By 2005, domestic discretionary budget authority had grown to $417 billion -- a more than 25 percent increase in just six years. Inflation alone would have hiked the number to just $359 billion.

And that isn't even to mention the massive growth in Medicare benefits foisted on the American people in a corrupt, three-hour, overnight vote that did lasting damage to the House's institutional integrity.

In 2006 and 2008, voters punished Republicans accordingly. And look where we are now….

GRANTED, HUNDREDS OF OTHER political factors played a role in all of these elections. Cold War, hot wars, impeachment, terrorism, hurricanes, ethics and other major factors influenced the electorate in myriad ways. But if spending restraint actually were a major impediment to electoral success, why have Republican fortunes actually tracked so closely their relative success at limiting government? When Republicans act like fiscal conservatives, they have won, again and again. When they have spent like inebriated mariners, they have lost -- again and again.

The obvious conclusion, from more than a quarter-century of modern American history, is that limiting government is either a strong net plus, politically, or at least not in any way a drag on electoral fortunes; profligacy, on the contrary, is either a strong net minus, politically, or at least not in any way an electoral benefit.

The evidence for the contrary conclusion -- that voters reward big government -- is utterly, completely nonexistent.

Of course, as I argued last week, conservatives ought to fight big government on principle even if the political winds blow in the other direction. The good news, though, is that on the basic issue of limiting the national government, principle and good politics go hand in hand.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.