Five Republicans have won the presidency since 1932: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes. Only Reagan was even close to being a small-government conservative. And he campaigned in 1980 more as a tax-cutter and national-defense-builder-upper, and less as a small-government enthusiast in the mold of the man he had supported — and who had lost — in 1964, Barry Goldwater. And Reagan’s record as governor and president wasn’t a particularly government-slashing one.
It’s one thing to say that Reagan wasn’t effective at reducing the size of government, but to say he didn’t run on a small-government message is simply not backed up by the facts. Here are some excerpts from his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican National Convention:
As your nominee, I pledge to restore to the federal government the capacity to do the people’s work without dominating their lives. I pledge to you a government that will not only work well, but wisely; its ability to act tempered by prudence and its willingness to do good balanced by the knowledge that government is never more dangerous than when our desire to have it help us blinds us to its great power to harm us….
It is essential that we maintain both the forward momentum of economic growth and the strength of the safety net beneath those in society who need help. We also believe it is essential that the integrity of all aspects of Social Security are preserved.
Beyond these essentials, I believe it is clear our federal government is overgrown and overweight. Indeed, it is time for our government to go on a diet. Therefore, my first act as chief executive will be to impose an immediate and thorough freeze on federal hiring. Then, we are going to enlist the very best minds from business, labor and whatever quarter to conduct a detailed review of every department, bureau and agency that lives by federal appropriations. We are also going to enlist the help and ideas of many dedicated and hard working government employees at all levels who want a more efficient government as much as the rest of us do. I know that many are demoralized by the confusion and waste they confront in their work as a result of failed and failing policies.
Our instructions to the groups we enlist will be simple and direct. We will remind them that government programs exist at the sufferance of the American taxpayer and are paid for with money earned by working men and women. Any program that represents a waste of their money–a theft from their pocketbooks–must have that waste eliminated or the program must go–by executive order where possible; by congressional action where necessary. Everything that can be run more effectively by state and local government we shall turn over to state and local government, along with the funding sources to pay for it. We are going to put an end to the money merry-go-round where our money becomes Washington’s money, to be spent by the states and cities exactly the way the federal bureaucrats tell them to.
I will not accept the excuse that the federal government has grown so big and powerful that it is beyond the control of any president, any administration or Congress. We are going to put an end to the notion that the American taxpayer exists to fund the federal government. The federal government exists to serve the American people. On January 20th, we are going to re-establish that truth.
Cato’s Michael Tanner has more about Planet Kristol, where President Bush’s big government policies were a smashing political success.
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