Another Perspective

Losing to Win

Isn't the problem that Republicans are learning the wrong lessons from their victories? A reply to David Hogberg.

By 9.26.06

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In a piece last Wednesday on The American Spectator website, David Hogberg argues that the notion that limited government supporters will be happier if Republicans lose in November -- thereby ushering in at least two years of divided government -- might be too clever by half.

Hogberg explains we "should never underestimate politicians' ability to glean the wrong lesson from an election." It's reasonable to fear that post-loss Republicans will conclude that their electoral problem wasn't that they ushered in a new era of Big Government but that they failed to endorse an era of Even Bigger Government instead.

But it seems to me the bigger problem is that Republicans are learning the wrong lessons from their victories. Right now, the message they're receiving is that voters are peachy with how things are going on the Hill.

The GOP seems to learn the right lessons from their electoral losses. They certainly did after the 1992 elections. Without the loss of George H.W. Bush, the Republican Revolution of 1994 would not have been possible. Many of the candidates who ran in 1994 were motivated by Clinton's rush to nationalize the health-care system. But many were also fed up with "me too" Republicans like House minority leader Bob Michel.

What about the morning after the elections? In the wake of a Republican loss of the House, "there will likely be challenges and possibly 'coup attempts' against House GOP leaders," Hogberg writes. "While the long-term fallout of losing in 2006 may be positive, the short run losses could be very ugly."

Also true. But when has the learning process in politics -- indeed, much of anything in politics -- ever been pretty? Necessary, yes, but certainly not a thing of beauty. Besides, there are probably very few conservatives who see the current crew of House and Senate leaders as strong captains. Denny Hastert isn't someone who leaps to mind as a swashbuckling budget-cutter.

Finally, Hogberg takes aim at the divided government thesis: "It rests heavily on the Reagan and Clinton years," he writes, "but a look at the year-to-year percentage change of the government portion of gross domestic product suggests that fiscal restraint is far more contingent on the political climate."

You'd find plenty of agreement on this among supporters of the divided government thesis. The thesis itself is nothing if not an attempt to explain how the political climate affects policy.

As Hogberg rightly notes, the big net declines in government spending occurred only after substantial victories by candidates who professed an explicitly stated goal of scaling back government. And he's right to point out that over time, fiscal discipline flagged. Divided government, however, puts an outer limit on how bad things can get. Republicans just weren't interested in spending all that much money on the programs that Clinton wanted, nor was Clinton interested in spending on many of the programs the GOP wanted.

The divided government thesis rests on a key assumption about the political environment: The one thing you can count on in Washington is partisanship. When Republicans are fighting a big-spending Democratic White House -- or when they are a beleaguered congressional minority -- they are in their element. Big Government is the clear enemy. But once they find themselves in control of the game, they are less willing to throw punches out of fear that they'll hit their own teammates.

Consider how the GOP Congress reacted to non-defense budget requests under both Clinton and George W. Bush. They managed to cut Clinton's domestic spending requests by an average of $9 billion each year between fiscal 1996 and 2001. Contrast that with the budget outcomes under President Bush, specifically the years in which Congress was held entirely by Republicans. Between fiscal years 2004 and 2006, Congress passed, and Bush refused to veto, non-defense budgets that were an average of $16 billion more than the president proposed each year.

The rules of partisanship imply that a Big Government scheme proposed by a Republican president is more likely to be accepted by a Republican Congress than if it were proposed by a Democrat. That's exactly what happened with the Medicare drug benefit. It's unlikely the drug benefit would ever have passed if it had been proposed by, say, President Al Gore or President Hillary Clinton. And if the Medicare expansion had gotten traction in Congress, Republican leaders would probably have been more interested in slowing it down and tacking on real reforms instead of abandoning the reforms as they did in 2003.

"Would Bush and a Democrat-controlled House be an improvement over recent years? Doubtful," Hogberg concludes. "Bush is, at best, a squish on fiscal restraint (and that's being charitable)."

One thing we have seen, however, is that Bush, like all politicians, is a political animal. On domestic policy, he usually cares more about scoring one for his own team than upholding a coherent position on the role of government in a free society. I suspect the president would go hunting for his veto pen more often if he were faced with a Democratic House. And imagine how congressional Republicans would fight the sorts of big government schemes they currently push if those proposals came instead from the mouths of Democratic majority leaders.

Divided government isn't a cure-all. But I'm willing to entertain the notion that those who value limited government would be at least no worse off under it than they are now.

Stephen Slivinski is director of budget studies at the Cato Institute and author of Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government (Nelson Current, 2006).

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