The Spectacle Blog

Defending Big Government Conservatism

By on 12.18.06 | 12:35PM

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter and policy advisor to President Bush, offers an all out assault on limited government conservatism in Newsweek, calling those of us who believe in smaller government "fundamentalists" and concluding that "any political movement that elevates abstract antigovernment ideology above human needs is hardly conservative, and unlikely to win."

A few quick bones to pick with a deeply flawed article that will no doubt be the source of much more debate within the conservative community.

Gerson argues that in the wake of Katrina, an event that "demanded an active response to government....the response of many Republicans was to use the disaster as an excuse for cutting government spending, particularly the Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors." But that was not it at all. Small government Republicans, led by Mike Pence, acknowledged that government would have to play an active role in hurricane relief, but with estimates for the cost of relief running as high as $200 billion, these Republicans argued that, given this large, unexpected expenditure, Congress should find ways to offset the cost by cutting spending elsewhere. Furthermore, it was actually big government Republicans who were the one's exploiting the disaster, and trying to use it as an excuse to fund pork barrel spending projects such as Trent Lott's Railroad to Nowhere.

Gerson also pins the blame for the skyrocketing budget during the Bush years on post-9/11 security needs. But security had nothing to do with the pork-laden transportation or energy bills, with the largest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson, or with the 15,000-plus earmarks that were tacked onto FY2006 appropriations acts. Gerson writes that the average annual increase in non-defense discretionary spending during the Bush years has been 3.9 percent. Sneakily, he compares this to "President Clinton's double-digit growth in his final year." However, as Stephen Slivinski points out in his book Buck Wild, the average growth rate in this category of spending for the entire Clinton presidency was 2.1 percent. In his attempt to defend the Bush fiscal record, Gerson also argues that "the golden age of austerity under Reagan is a myth." While limited government conservatives all wish Reagan was able to do more to dismantle the welfare state, he should at least be given credit where credit was due. Even with Democrats in control of the House throughout his presidency, non-defense discretionary spending decreased under Reagan at an annual rate of 1.4 percent.

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