IN THE WANING DAYS of the Republican congressional majority, there were countless signs that it wasn’t 1994 anymore. Of course, in retrospect, that had been evident for some time. There was the budget agreement of 1998, when the Republican Congress first tried to outspend Bill Clinton. And the GOP had caved during the budget stalemate with Clinton all the way back in 1996. Within a decade, talking about a revolution really did sound like a whisper.
Yet it was those keepers of the ’94 flame in the Republican Study Committee who helped their colleagues most depressingly illustrate the GOP’s decline. The determined conservative caucus offered annual spending blueprints based on the budget that actually passed the full House in 1995. By 2006, these budget proposals couldn’t even muster a majority among members of the Republican Study Committee. Not for nothing did Eric Pfeiffer, writing in Reason magazine, call the less tightfisted members of the RSC “the budget-cutters who couldn’t stop spending.”
So when the Republican majority finally slipped away, principled conservatives were among the least surprised. “We lost our way,” Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana, a former chairman of the RSC, frequently lamented. Conservatives complained that the GOP frittered away its majority by growing government, engaging in wasteful spending, tolerating ethical lapses, and otherwise compromising the party’s image for fiscal rectitude and basic competence. Part of the problem was President Bush, whose agenda included the Medicare prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, and amnesty for illegal immigrants. But any honest assessment would have to conclude that the troubles began long before Bush came to town.
Conservatives didn’t lose the 2006 elections, the argument went. Republicans did. This point of view was not without critics. George Packer contended in the New Yorker that it “had the appeal of asking relatively little of conservatives.” Liberals, inexplicably to most conservatives, saw the Republican losses as evidence that anti-government ideology had failed. Some conservatives worried that the right was still singing from the same song sheet as when Ronald Reagan was elected nearly three decades ago. Analysts of all stripes protested that it conveniently ignored Iraq’s role in the Republican “thumping.” And some Republicans continued to believe that pork and incumbency was the path to power.
But two years later, the “lost our way” narrative is close to being the consensus view among Republicans as to why the Democrats retook Congress. It is certainly the explanation embraced by the GOP presidential nominee, who for the better part of the last decade hasn’t exactly been a conservative ideologue. “We went to Washington to change government,” John McCain likes to say on the stump, “but instead government changed us.” Campaigning on the deck of the USS Yorktown before the South Carolina primary, McCain kept exclaiming, “Spending! It’s the spending!”
McCain has even gone a step further than most of his congressional colleagues, embracing earmark reform as one of his few domestic-policy crusades during the presidential campaign. “I have fought the big spenders in both parties who waste your money on things you may not need or want,” the Arizona senator said during his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, among many other places. “And the first big spending, pork barrel earmarked bill that comes across my desk, I will veto it. I will make them famous and you will know their names!” His best—indeed, only memorable—debate line in the primaries contrasted his POW status in Vietnam with Hillary Clinton’s support for a Woodstock-related earmark.
When it came time to pick a running mate, McCain was reportedly tempted to emphasize his hawkishness by choosing pro-war Democrat Joe Lieberman or his appeal to swing voters by tapping by pro-choice Republican Tom Ridge. But instead he doubled down on the anti-pork, anti-Republican establishment message by opting for Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska and emerging conservative rock star. Palin climbed the ladder by standing up to her own party’s corrupt, big-spending old-boy network. Whatever her initial inclinations, she eventually broke with her state’s mostly geriatric GOP congressional delegation on the Bridge to Nowhere. In her speech at the Republican convention, the hockey mom implied that she would remove her lipstick and become a pit bull at the sight of an earmark.
Congressional Republicans have been slower to get on the anti-earmarks bandwagon, because many of them are pork-beggers rather than pork-busters. When Mike Pence and Congressman John Shadegg of Arizona, both fiscally conservative reformers, sought leadership positions after the 2006 elections, they were shellacked by the John Boehner/Roy Blunt team that was already in place. “They just lost, what, 30 seats?” an exasperated conservative activist fumed at the time. “I don’t know what it will take for them to get it.”
While House Minority Leader Boehner made some gestures toward members frustrated with earmarks, his caucus remains too divided over the issue to deliver the same unambiguous message as McCain. Many House Republicans spoke out against the unrelated domestic spending Democrats inserted in supplementals intended to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but half of them also voted for the $300 billion farm bill that was as loaded with earmarks as the infamous 2005 highway bill.
WHERE “PORK VERSUS PRINCIPLE” emerged as a major theme in intraparty contests this year, the results were mixed. In California’s Fourth Congressional District, state Senator Tom McClintock vied with former Congressman Doug Ose to succeed retiring Congressman John Doolittle. Doolittle was a poster child for the GOP’s 2006 image problems. His home was raided by the FBI as part of an investigation into whether his wife accepted money from Jack Abramoff in exchange for favors for the convicted felon’s clients. Doolittle maintains that he and his wife are innocent, but he has never denied seeking earmarks to do favors for his constituents.
McClintock is a conservative well known for his service in the legislature, several painfully close statewide races, and his third-place finish in the 2003 recall election for governor. Ose is a moderate who pledged to continue Doolittle’s earmarking ways and spent $3 million of his own money attacking McClintock for, among other things, his anti-pork stand. McClintock countered that he wouldn’t “fight for scraps” from Washington’s table.
In the end, the June primary wasn’t even close. McClintock beat Ose by 54 percent to 39 percent, carrying all nine of the district’s counties even though he currently represents a state senate district that is some 400 miles away. McClintock’s conservatism—earmarks are the least of the spending he would cut—trumped charges that he was a carpetbagger. He is now trying to pull the football away from Democratic opponent Charlie Brown, who came within three points of Doolittle in 2006.
Things did not work nearly as well for anti-pork Republicans in Sarah Palin’s home state of Alaska, where GOP Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young can compete with West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd in bringing home the bacon. Young is under federal investigation; Stevens has been indicted and is currently on trial. Neither is favored to win reelection, yet in August they both dispatched conservative primary challengers.
Stevens’s main challenger, businessman and former state legislator Dave Cuddy, didn’t start campaigning in earnest until the indictments against the incumbent were handed down. Even then, he faced an uphill battle against the longest-serving Republican senator. “I’m hearing people say they will vote for [Stevens] even if he is in jail,” Cuddy told TAS at the time. And so they might have: Stevens won his primary with 63 percent of the vote.
Alaska’s other prince of pork, Don “Kiss My Ear” Young, faced a tougher challenge. Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell was backed by Palin and the Club for Growth. Young received an improbable last-minute endorsement from Ron Paul, who finished ahead of McCain in the Frontier State’s caucuses. “I believe we have a good shot,” Parnell told TAS in June. But Young squeaked through by just 304 votes.
This small snapshot reveals the divide among congressional Republicans. Many, if not most, of them claim to believe that overspending contributed to their 2006 losses or at least helped the GOP’s brand of dog food expire on the shelves. But two years later, they still rush to vote for big-spending bills, sensing that the electorate—even in the Republican primary—is unlikely to punish them. It will take at least another two years to know if they are right—and if the Grand Old Spending Party is truly over.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.