TCS Daily

"Me Too Republicanism" with a Vengeance

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - August 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Last year I wrote an article stating that President Bush was endangering his re-election campaign by displeasing natural supporters with his failure -- or unwillingness -- to rein in the growth of government. In my article, I argued that the President was helping the Republican Party go back to the days of "Me Too Republicanism" in which the GOP was basically willing to go along with Democratic New Deal initiatives, accepting implicitly the premise that government should be enlarged and active.

Well, it turns out that President Bush still managed to get himself re-elected. But merely because his political fortunes did not suffer in 2004, it does not mean that Republican political fortunes may not suffer in either 2006 or 2008 thanks to a continuing and bizarre tendency among national Republicans to embrace the foundations of a large and activist government. As the writer Matt Welch points out, Republicans who participated in the GOP's congressional takeover in 1994 are fed up with the Bush Administration's seemingly unhesitating embrace of big government. Libertarians and small-government conservatives are outraged about the size of federal budget outlays, and increased regulation (including Internet regulation). Their message is clear: The Republican political dominance that has largely taken place over the last decade is in danger of being betrayed on the policy front as national Republicans have found their appetite for increasing the size of government -- and increasing commensurately their hold on power.

Concerns about policy betrayal are only augmented by the President's decision to sign into law a bloated federal highway bill. The White House is touting the highway legislation as a form of economic stimulus, but the bill is loaded with embarrassingly aggrandizing pork projects for select representatives and senators. The White House's lame retort to concerns about the cost of the bill is that 'it could have cost $400 billion, but didn't thanks to the President sticking to his guns!', a reply that is not exactly certain to go over well with libertarians and small-government conservatives.

Now, to be sure, Republicans have done good things for their small-government, free-market base. Free-marketers should generally take heart at the work done by the Bush Administration to pass CAFTA -- as well as noting that the Democratic Party has become largely protectionist. The Republican commitment to lower taxes remains a key feature in its ability to keep the loyalties of small-government activists. These activists know that when it comes to keeping taxes low, whether one measures in relative or absolute form, Republicans are pretty much the only game in town.

But there can be no denying the fact that the GOP's abandonment of a large measure of the small-government agenda is alienating much of its base. At the same time, it is difficult to see what small-government activists can do about it. Because congressional districts have been redrawn by Republicans, it is much more difficult for Democrats to be able to oust Republicans from their seats in the House of Representatives. Even if the issue of congressional districts were not in play, it is not likely that small-government activists would throw in their lot with Democrats who as a party believe that government should be a powerful agent of societal influence and who would be just as willing as national Republicans -- if not more so -- to expand government in order to protect their political power if the majority changes hands.

The best solution to this dilemma is for small-government activists to become more engaged in finding primary challengers for "Me Too" Republicans in their districts and in their senatorial races. Neither the White House nor the Republican National Committee should continue to hold to the default position of automatically endorsing incumbent candidates in their re-election races. If Republican incumbents are found to have abandoned small-government principles, they should be challenged by insurgents who will fight to end the ongoing policy betrayal that is happening in the battle to limit government.

Finding challengers will not be an easy task. But it can be rewarding if it is endorsed at the highest levels of the Republican Party and if it attracts the interest and organizational power of small-government political groups. At the very least, the process will throw a scare into national Republicans and cause them to realize that their base will not be satisfied merely with the election of Republicans to positions of national prominence.

Naturally, there may be some who are concerned that the defeat of an incumbent Republican Representative or Senator in primaries and/or caucuses will give a Democratic challenger an advantage. But in House races, a small-government Republican insurgent who wins a primary or a caucus will still be able to benefit from redrawn congressional districts that are advantageous to Republicans. In Senate races, a small-government insurgent will still be able to benefit if the state that he/she is running in is favorable to Republicans. Additionally, those who may believe that a small-government insurgent will be disadvantaged by not having as large a campaign war chest in a general election fight as a Republican incumbent would, should read Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's examination of the role of money in election campaigns. As Levitt and Dubner point out, candidates don't necessarily win because they have more money. Rather, they win because they are better liked and their funding prowess comes from the fact that they are better liked. In congressional districts and states that are heavily Republican, small-government candidates will have a powerful claim to popularity over "Me Too" Republicans. That popularity will help them build a healthy war chest and will help them win elections.

Obviously, not every "Me Too" Republican will be challenged by an insurgent. But the problem right now is that Republicans have grown too comfortable and complacent in power. The only way that small-government ideas can triumph on the national stage is if their espousal by national Republicans is rewarded by the loyalty and support of small-government activists. It naturally follows, then, that the betrayal of such ideas should be punished. And that punishment can and should take place at the primary and caucus level, with Republicans who have forgotten the principles the GOP is supposed to stand for being replaced by those who stand a better chance of staying true to those principles.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributor.


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