With his long awaited entry into the presidential campaign, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson says that he will base his campaign on the “first principles” of “individual freedom and limited government.” If he follows through, he will have an opportunity to position himself as the only small-government conservative in the race.
As I wrote in my book, Leviathan on the Right, Republicans have been increasingly split between traditional small-government conservatives in the Reagan and Goldwater molds and a new breed of big-government conservatives who believe in using an activist government to achieve conservative ends — even if it means increasing the size, cost, and power of government in the process.
The difference in the two camps is as clear as the difference between Ronald Reagan, who said “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” and George W. Bush, who said, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”
Bush’s brand of big-government conservatism brought us No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and a 23 percent increase in domestic discretionary spending. It may well have cost Republicans control of Congress. After all, on election night 2006, 55 percent of voters said that they thought the Republican Party was the party of big government. Now, the Republican primary campaign raises the question of whether the party will continue down the Bush path or return to its Reagan-Goldwater roots.
Most of the current candidates fall squarely into the big-government camp. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney imposed a Hillary Clinton style health plan in his state and not only supports No Child Left Behind, but calls for the federal government to buy a laptop computer for every child born in America. John McCain has an admirable record as a fiscal conservative, but he has shown a disturbing predilection for making a federal issue of making every personal pet peeve, from steroids in baseball to airplane service quality. He has embraced heavily regulatory environmental policies and compulsory national service. More important, he is the principal author of a campaign finance bill that severely restricts political speech. And as anyone from Michael Milken to Amadou Diallo can tell you, Rudy Giuliani’s record on civil liberties can only be described as abysmal.
Does Fred Thompson, then, offer an alternative for small-government conservatives? While he is not quite the second coming of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, a look at his record shows that he has generally supported limited government.
During his eight years in the Senate, Thompson had a solid record as a fiscal conservative. The National Taxpayers Union gives him the third highest marks of any candidate (trailing only Reps. Ron Paul and Rep. Tom Tancredo). He generally shared McCain’s opposition to pork barrel spending and earmarks, and voted against the 2002 farm bill. He voted for the Bush tax cuts and has generally been solid in support of tax reduction. He has consistently supported entitlement reform, voting to means-test Medicare and supporting personal accounts for Social Security.
On federalism, there may be no better candidate. His Senate record is replete with examples of his being the lone opponent of legislation that he thought undercut federalist principles. He took this position even on legislation that was otherwise supported by conservatives. He opposes federal action to prohibit gay marriage on federalist grounds, although he supports state bans. One blight on this record is his vote in favor of No Child Left Behind, but he now says he opposes increased federal involvement in education.
On the other hand, he supported McCain-Feingold, although he has now backed away from that position as well, suggesting the law has been overtaken by events. He now says that he is willing to consider scrapping campaign finance restrictions in favor of full disclosure. And his position on civil liberties generally is troubling. He supported the anti-flag burning constitutional amendment and expansion of federal police powers generally. So far he has given no suggestion that he breaks with the Bush administration on important issues like habeas corpus, torture, and surveillance.
On foreign policy he has been a hawk, and supports continuing the war in Iraq. Thompson also appears to take the neoconservative line on Iran, North Korea, and China. It’s hard to be a small-government conservative while favoring more widespread military intervention. War is a big-government program.
Of course, spending the last several years in Hollywood has enabled Thompson to avoid taking positions on many current issues. Now that he is in the race, he’ll have to be much more specific about his positions. But, given the fact that McCain, Romney, and Giuliani are clearly big-government conservatives, Thompson has an opportunity to seize the small-government mantle. If he does, it could lead to a very interesting campaign.
Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute.