If a successful steakhouse stopped selling beef and substituted stale vegan sandwiches as part of a strategy to increase its customer base, the restaurant wouldn’t remain in business very long. Yet for some reason, the Republican Party has adopted precisely this strategy for governing.
Instead of rewarding its loyal voters with the limited government they were promised, the Republican Party has decided to increase its voter base by offering the stale ideas of big government liberalism. This tactic is difficult to understand given that in modern midterm elections, voter turnout has hovered around 40 percent, meaning that winning is about having an energized base that will show up on Election Day. Nothing would energize that base more than if Republicans used their power to reduce the size and scope of government, so why doesn’t the party give its voters what they want?
“It’s what I call Republican Disease,” former House Majority Leader Dick Armey told me recently. “They want to be loved by the beautiful people. They want the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post to say nice things about them.”
At a breakfast hosted by TAS last week, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), one of the few remaining small government warriors in the Republican Party, described the logic behind the Republican leadership’s embrace of big government. As they pushed for a massive expansion of federal control over education in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act, Pence recalled Republican leaders justifying it by arguing, “Democrats have a huge advantage on education.” A similar attitude took hold as Republicans added the prescription drug benefit to Medicare, marking the largest expansion of entitlements since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.
Expanding entitlements and federalizing education clearly runs contrary to conservative principles, but the programs’ defenders on the right would argue that they were politically necessary in order to win elections. However, it’s difficult to see any evidence that Republicans won over moderates or Democrats as a result of betraying small government conservatives. If anything, the evidence supports the exact opposite conclusion.
According to the exit polls from the 2000 election, those voters who identified education as the issue that “mattered most,” favored Al Gore over George W. Bush by a spread of 52 percent to 44 percent. The No Child Left Behind Act had passed by the time the 2004 election rolled around, and yet, according to exit polls, John Kerry trounced President Bush among voters who thought education was most important, by a margin of 73 percent to 26 percent. The numbers are similar with voters who thought health care was the most important issue. In 2000, Gore had a 64-33 advantage among these voters; in 2004, despite the passage of the Medicare prescription drug law (or perhaps even because of it), Kerry was favored by a margin of 77-23.
Defenders of the policy of triangulation may stress that Republicans maintained their majority in 2002 and 2004, but this was largely the result of national security and values issues, not because of any pandering they did on health care or education. Those Republican leaders who see expanding government as the means to maintain power overlook the fact that they have power in the first place because 1994’s “Contract With America” promised to get government off of people’s backs. They forget that a generation of conservatives was inspired by Ronald Reagan’s eloquent defense of limited government, not by statist gobbledygook.
But there is a much simpler reason why Republicans should once-again embrace limited government: it works. If Republicans believe that conservative ideas are right, the best way to prove that to other people is to institute them.
When we spoke, Dick Armey pointed to welfare reform as evidence that if Republicans persevere and actually achieve something, it will be looked back on as a success. Though conservatives might argue that the reform didn’t go far enough, it was clearly a vast improvement over the system that existed before it.
If Republicans showed the political courage to implement such policies as school vouchers, market reforms in healthcare, and Social Security personal accounts, at a minimum, they would thrill their base, and would likely win over moderates as liberal scare tactics are proven baseless.
Were they to govern this way, Republicans would be a lot more confident going into Election Day, and they’d be able to run a campaign based on more than simply calling Democrats “fraidy cats.” Just as a great steakhouse wouldn’t last long were it to start dabbling in vegan cuisine, the Republican Party will not survive as the party of big government.
As Mike Pence put it: “We will never win by being them, we will only win by being us.”