The Magazine

Misreading History

The lesson of the last eight years is not that Americans want a smaller government.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Some Republicans--including a lot on Capitol Hill--are in danger of making a mistake. They're about to draw the wrong lessons from the Bush legacy. And misreading history will only prolong the GOP's time in political detention.

Somehow Republicans and conservatives have gotten the idea that, if only Bush hadn't approved all those big spending bills, things would have worked out splendidly. The argument goes something like this: Bush betrayed conservatives with No Child Left Behind, reauthorizing farm subsidies, expanding Medicare, and turning a blind eye to pork-barrel spending. Big spending policies hurt GOP credibility with the public. Since voters couldn't spot the difference between Republicans and Democrats, they opted for the real party of government. Hence the constant refrain you hear in conservative circles about the GOP needing to "return to its roots" and oppose the welfare state on principle. That will boost conservative turnout, reestablish confidence in the Republican party, and get us back to the glory days.

Sorry, folks. The lesson of the last eight years is not that Americans want a smaller government. It's that Americans recoil at what appears to be an incompetently run government out of touch with the major challenges of the day. Your average voter doesn't mind government action if he deems it necessary to pursue a public good like national defense or supporting retirees. He votes for the party that has the most compelling program for the future, not the one simply trying to stand athwart it.

Conservatives have been successful not when they've rigidly opposed government, but when they've proposed a different type of government that produces conservative results. Barry Goldwater rode his extremism in the defense of liberty right into a political ditch, whereas Ronald Reagan campaigned and won on pro-growth tax cuts, a defense build-up, and national pride. It's true that Reagan always regretted his inability to stop government expansion. But the voters had few such regrets.

In 1994, Republicans campaigned on a Contract With America that didn't simply hurl abuse at big government. It promised reform. The American voters gave the GOP both houses of Congress. But Republicans forgot the Contract's lessons and turned a principled stand against spending into a government shutdown that appeared willful and obstinate. And what do you know? Congressional Republicans lost seats in each of the next three cycles.

Then George W. Bush promised a different kind of Republicanism that would introduce conservative policy ideas into established (or new) government programs. We're not about to defend everything Bush did, or argue that all of these reforms will prove beneficial in the long run. Instead we will note that, substantively and politically, Bush's first term was a success. He not only got his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, and Medicare prescription drug coverage. He won reelection and saw expanded GOP congressional majorities in 2002 and 2004.

The second term? Not so good. Bush's approval rating sank below 50 percent in the spring of 2005. This was months before Hurricane Katrina and the onset of sectarian war in Iraq. Bush's numbers fell as he was traveling the country trying to convince Americans to partially privatize Social Security. That might have been the right thing to do. It certainly was the libertarian thing to do. But it was also incredibly unpopular. When he talked about Social Security, Bush scared the bejeezus out of voters, and his ratings never recovered.

Now Republicans are powerless and in a state of denial. They think a war on earmarks and a cut in the capital gains tax will solve everything. Not gonna happen.

Of course, none of this means that Republicans shouldn't oppose Obama's liberal agenda. What it means, instead, is that they need to put positive, conservative reforms front and center.

Such an agenda probably won't come from the GOP congressional leadership. No, as in 1977-80, intellectual creativity and political entrepreneurship is likely to come from the backbenches. It's already beginning to happen. Last month, Tennessee senator Bob Corker emerged from nowhere to lead the GOP in framing an alternative to the auto bailout. But he needs some company. Luckily, there are plenty of areas where an ambitious conservative reformer can make his--or her!--name. For example, Martin Feldstein, Tom Donnelly, and others at the American Enterprise Institute have developed a sensible proposal to shift some of Obama's stimulus money to defense spending. It could sure use a political champion.

A less intrusive government that encourages personal responsibility among its adult citizens is an important goal. The difficulty is getting there. A reflexive opposition to government is not the way.

--Matthew Continetti, for the Editors