TCS Daily

"Me Too" Republicanism Returns

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - December 2, 2003 12:00 AM

For President Bush to avoid his father's re-election fate, he must have a strong base of conservative support. This will ensure that conservatives turn out in the general election to propel the President to victory. In many ways, President Bush has pleased conservatives -- from his fight against terrorism, to the passage of tax cuts that appear to have strongly stimulated the economy, to his support for a ban on partial-birth abortions. But just as his father disillusioned conservatives by backing the 1990 tax increase, the current President Bush is in danger of antagonizing his base by failing to rein in the growth of government.


Even if one excludes the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the defense spending that became inevitable and crucial after the September 11th terrorist attacks, we see that non-defense discretionary spending has increased by 20.8%. That spending will only increase with the passage of a $400 billion Medicare drug prescription plan, and if the $33 billion energy package -- a package that is already 4 times larger than the President promised it would be, and that is without the ability to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- also clears the Senate.


While conservatives have no problem with the tax cuts that were passed, and while the increased defense spending was desired even before September 11th, the creation of a new entitlement under Medicare has conservatives wondering just which party has control of the White House and Congress.


This state of affairs has caused dismay and consternation on the Right. Conservatives and libertarians are increasingly concerned over the free-spending ways of Republican-dominated Washington. Even journalists like Fred Barnes, who sought at one time to justify "big government conservatism" by saying that government was now being used to implement the agenda of the Right, is now backing away from that argument, fearing that the Bush Administration and the Republican majority may be buying into the Democratic domestic agenda, and will have nothing to show for it down the line in terms of using government to achieve conservative and libertarian goals. Those fears are justified -- large government programs rarely, if ever get rolled back.


So why have Republicans acceded to the politics of big spending? Fear of the political consequences of doing otherwise may have something to do with it. Remember all of those cartoons deriding Newt Gingrich and Republicans as "Grinches" when the Republicans took over Congress in 1994? Perhaps they have decided that the best course is to preempt any such charges by seeing the Democrats and raising them when it comes to discretionary spending.


It has become standard practice for each party to try to steal the issues of the other. Bill Clinton and the Democrats tried to do it to Republicans on a regular basis, and now George W. Bush is helping Republicans return the favor. Also, Republicans are likely to point to the current infighting between Howard Dean and John Kerry as justification for their plans. Kerry is attacking Dean for ostensibly wanting to cut Medicare. This accusation is absurd -- Dean doesn't want to cut Medicare, he wants to lower the rate of growth in Medicare -- a completely different thing. But Kerry refuses to recognize the distinction, and is bound and determined to portray Dean as hardhearted.


This is what Democrats are doing to one another. Imagine what they will do to Republicans.


But if it is political absolution that the Republicans want, they are not likely to get it. Prior to the advent of Barry Goldwater, Republicans aped Democrats on domestic policy in the wake of the establishment of the New Deal. This prompted wags to refer to the GOP as "me too Republicans," willing to go along with Democratic initiatives. From 1932 through 1964, Democrats won 7 out of 9 presidential elections.


It wasn't until Goldwater's 1964 candidacy that Republicans began to break from the "me too" ideology, and identify with conservative and libertarian principles -- with Goldwater's slogan "A Choice, Not An Echo" symbolizing the new Republican stand. Despite the crushing electoral defeat that Goldwater suffered, he set the stage for the rise of conservatism and libertarianism -- a rise that was furthered by Ronald Reagan's surprisingly effective primary challenge to Gerald Ford in 1976, and consummated with Reagan's electoral victories in 1980 and 1984. The identification of Republicans as the party of conservative and libertarian principles -- the party of small and restrained government -- corresponded with the rise of the Republicans to power; winning six out of the past nine presidential elections, and gaining control of the Congress in 1994 after a 40 year absence from power in the House of Representatives.


Republicans have worked hard since the Goldwater days to build for themselves a congressional majority and a winning record in races for the presidency. They have achieved their goals through embracing small government principles, and providing a conservative/libertarian alternative to the remnants of the New Deal and the Great Society. But now, "me too Republicanism" is making a comeback. If it supplants the conservative/libertarian ethos, it could once again relegate Republicans to the minority status they suffered during the days of FDR and LBJ.



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