It isn't worth counting the number of times Ronald Reagan's name was invoked at the two Republican primary debates (but for those interested, the number is 27). The addiction to the gratuitous Gipper name-drop reveals a tendency among today's Republicans to romanticize a past which, however imperfect, appears in retrospect to be so eminently superior to the present. This tendency is revealed also by the platitudes the candidates speak.
In last Tuesday night's debate, Republican congressman Tom Tancredo claimed that the GOP has "lost the mantle of fiscal responsibility" it once held dear. Virtually every candidate has in some way expressed this same view, i.e., that the GOP used to be fiscally responsible up until recently. Sen. John McCain said in both debates that Republicans spend money "like a drunken sailor," as if the profligacy were somehow a new phenomenon. It is a familiar gripe, but it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
Whenever Republicans cite their party's long-lost fiscal sobriety, they're giving themselves too much credit. The claim is refuted by asking one question: When was this golden era? Or: When exactly were Republicans so fiscally prudent?
"Fiscal responsibility" is an elastic concept, but fundamentally it means balancing the federal budget. Democrats want to do this by raising taxes, whereas Republicans want to lower taxes and curb government spending. Before Reagan came along and made this approach the centerpiece of the Republican credo, Republican economics spoke the language of balanced budgets and fiscal austerity, which were to be achieved at all costs, whether through spending cuts or tax hikes. Deficit hawks, not supply-siders, dominated the party.
As Barry Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative, "[S]pending cuts must come before tax cuts. If we reduce taxes before firm, principled decisions are made about expenditures, we will court deficit spending and the inflationary effects that invariably follow." It was on these grounds that the Arizona senator opposed President Kennedy's tax cuts, fiscally irresponsible as he thought them to be.
Today's Republicans certainly can't be nostalgic for the preceding decade, the Fat Fifties. Eisenhower shaped his fiscal policies around what Goldwater would later deride as "me-too Republicanism," and the results were what one would expect from a willing inheritor of the New Deal. In 1957, Eisenhower, happy to pile up one bill after another for domestic expenditures, submitted what was at the time the largest peacetime budget in American history ($73.3 billion), a move which National Review called "an extremely dangerous policy." He made the same decision the next two years, only with more proposed spending.
Surely the candidates do not mean to hark back to the Nixon years, hardly the epitome of responsible governance. The Nixon presidency was supposed to represent a virulent pro-business ideology, but instead it adapted to the prevailing liberal orthodoxies of the day. Economist Herbert Stein, who served on Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers, later said, "The administration that was against expanding the budget expanded it greatly."
Nixon enforced wage and price controls, embraced the Keynesian doctrine of government spending, revalued the dollar, and expanded welfare entitlements. Under his reign, for the first time ever social spending eclipsed military spending, skyrocketing from $55 billion in 1970 to $132 billion five years later. Some restraint.
It is no wonder that the New York Times praised Nixon for his "abandonment of outmoded conservative doctrine." He had earned it. As the Times noted, Nixon left conservative Republicans in a prickly situation. "After the Nixon Administration's record, Republican candidates can no longer inveigh against big government, budget deficits, government subsidies or Federal regulation of the economy."
The Reagan years brought about a drastic revision of conservative economic philosophy, but the results were not flawless. Reaganomics worked wonders for the country, reducing inflation and unemployment and leading to unprecedented economic growth. However, as Attorney General Ed Meese would say almost a decade after Reagan left office, "The country is still waiting for the spending reductions." His rhetoric and best intentions notwithstanding, Reagan left office with the United States $1.5 trillion deeper in debt and with the deficit having risen by some $150 billion. "What's the sense of having a Republican administration," asked Senator William Armstrong, "if the best we can do is a $200 billion deficit?"
From the conservative point of view, the record of Reagan's successor, George Bush Sr., is one not only of recklessness but of infidelity as well. Bush 41 raised taxes, thereby repudiating the Reaganite model, and on top of that the federal government under his stewardship also spent more, resulting in larger deficits and, in due course, a recession. Spending as a percentage of GNP rose from 22.3% in 1989 to over 25% in 1991 -- that, even with the pennies saved by the so-called "peace dividend."
That leaves the Gingrich-led revolutionaries. They prided themselves on reining in Big Government, and they had some successes. Yet, insofar as they exercised fiscal propriety, they did so with a Democrat occupying the White House. As they soon discovered, it is easy to oppose spending sprees when the other branch is your adversary. If this arrangement is the formula for fiscal rectitude, well, then, there isn't much reason to vote a Republican into the White House after all. Perhaps this is why the candidates resort to platitudes in the first place -- to avoid having to explain what the concept of fiscal responsibility actually entails.
It is easy to find faults in the economic legacies bequeathed by past Republican officeholders. But even easier, and more credulous, is pretending that there once was some mythical state of economic bliss which can be magically re-created, provided one casts the right vote. If you associate yourself with an idealized past, then you don't have to answer for the imperfections of the present -- at least that is the hope. Talking the talk is better than no rhetoric at all, seeing as responsible behavior is unlikely without even the pretense of it. But just as the 40th president cannot be reincarnated by uttering his name, fiscal responsibility cannot be realized by mistaking the ideal for an idea, or the past for the future. Envisioning the latter should not mean revising the former.