The Public Policy

The Failure of Big Government Conservatism

An oft-told story -- that happens to be true.

By 11.11.08

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How did the Republicans fall so fast, so completely?

In an article published on the morning of election day, "Will GOP Learn from This?" Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, correctly predicted that Republicans were heading straight for a full-scale electoral wreckage: "The Republican Party is on the verge of its second consecutive election debacle. In two years, the GOP will likely have lost the presidency, more than a dozen Senate seats, and more than 50 seats in the House --- if it's lucky. Republicans will have gone from controlling every arm of government to controlling none."

How'd it happen? Was it that the stingy Republicans didn't promise enough free tuition, didn't promise to send free money (labeled as a tax cut) to everyone who doesn't pay any federal income taxes? Were Republicans defeated because they allowed Obama to outbid them on giveaways? Won't Santa Claus always pull more votes than Scrooge?

Republicans, in this view, won't get back on track until they up the ante and start promising free books to go along with the free tuition. At one of Obama's college rallies in which he was listing the problems he'd eliminate with a new trillion in government spending, a girl yelled "expensive textbooks" as her particular dilemma to be solved by some spreading of the wealth. "That too," replied Obama.

Hence, regarding how the GOP can resurrect itself, there are those who are already arguing that Republicans can only beat big government liberalism by way of big government conservatism.

"On the other side of this debate are those who believe that Republicans lost precisely because they abandoned their principles and commitment to limited government," writes Tanner. "Those arguing for a return to smaller government say that after eight years of a Bush administration that increased federal spending faster than any president since Lyndon Johnson, created the first new entitlement program in 40 years, increased federal control over education, and added 7,000 pages of new regulations to the Federal Register, Republicans had lost the ability to differentiate themselves from Democrats."

Continues Tanner: "These Republicans believe that America is essentially still a conservative nation. They point to polls showing that, even in the midst of an economic meltdown and a Democratic landslide, voters by a 2-1 margin continue to identify themselves as conservatives rather than liberals. They therefore want the Republican Party to return to its Reagan-Goldwater roots of support for smaller government and less spending."

In last Tuesday's election, CNN reported that exit polls showed that "43 percent of those surveyed believe that government is doing too much."

A Zogby poll in the 2006 Congressional elections found that 59 percent of voters described themselves as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" --- a basically libertarian position in the sense that it's saying that government is simultaneously overbearing in both what it takes out of our wallets and how much it seeks to control our behavior.

The problem for Republicans is that they've lost their claim to be fiscally conservative. On the day President George W. Bush took office, the national debt stood at $5.727 trillion, the total accumulation of 232 years. In September, the Treasury Department reported that the debt had nearly doubled to $9.849 trillion (not counting the Wall Street bailouts).

That's a 50-year high, measuring debt as a percentage of gross domestic product, and the biggest increase in debt under any president in U.S. history.

On the Democratic side, the latest example of massive fiscal irrationality was the party's attempt to deliver "affordable housing" by way of forcing banks to give loans to people who couldn't afford them, thereby creating the mortgage crisis that directly contributed to the current financial meltdown.

With both parties failing the test when it comes to fiscal responsibility, why wouldn't voters who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal go with the party that's socially liberal?

The comeback strategy? The winning ticket isn't big government, whether in the form of fiscal liberalism or social illiberalism. "The era of big government is over," Bill Clinton declared in his State of the Union Address on January 23, 1996, reacting to the public's opposition to his wife's 1993 overreach on health care and the subsequent 1994 midterm elections in which Republicans took control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in 40 years.

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.