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Republicans in the Good Old Days

They were just as conservative.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By JAY COST
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This jaunt through the last half-century suggests that in some respects Republicans have actually moved leftward over the years. Not on every issue, of course; the GOP can still be counted on to oppose Democrat-drafted pork barrel spending gussied up as “stimulus” and liberal designs for universal health care. But when they had complete control over the federal government from 2003 through 2007, Republicans did not eliminate the Department of Housing and Urban Development. They did not ditch Medicare Parts A and B. In fact, for the fiscal years when the GOP had total control of the budget-drafting process, discretionary nondefense spending averaged 3.8 percent of gross domestic product, about what it was during the Great Society and higher than during the Clinton years.

Here, Republicans have mostly followed public opinion. As the American people have come to accept and expect an enhanced role for the federal government in daily life, the GOP has more or less signed off​—​exactly what we should expect it to do, considering that the main purpose of the party is to win elections.

So why are liberals complaining about the GOP’s lurch rightward in recent years? One obvious explanation is the “mobilization of bias.” You cannot win elections in this country as a radical; ergo, if liberals can successfully tag Republicans as radicals, then they can effectively eliminate the GOP as a competitor.

Another explanation concerns the rise of House Republicans, now the most dominant faction of the GOP within the government. For 40 years, between 1955 and 1995, the House GOP was a minority, even as Republicans won the White House and eventually the Senate. But since 1995, House Republicans have controlled the speaker’s gavel for all but four years, while Democrats have actually held the presidency for most of these years and the two sides have roughly split control of the Senate.

House Republicans are much more unruly, but a cursory read of the Federalist Papers suggests that this probably has as much to do with the nature of the House as with the nature of the GOP. Indeed, back in 1990, during the supposedly halcyon days of temperate, moderate Republican rule, it was the House GOP that stymied George H. W. Bush’s attempts to pass a bipartisan deficit reduction deal that included tax hikes, and in the end Bush had to cut a deal almost entirely with Democratic support. Current House Republicans also balk at tax hikes for deficit reduction.

But there may be a third, more subtle trend working its way through the political system, one that is acutely influencing Republicans, especially on the House backbench. At the height of the Great Society, polling found that more than 70 percent of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time.” But with the Vietnam war, followed by the scandals of the Nixon administration, then the incompetence of the Carter administration, that number plummeted to 25 percent by 1980. Several years of solid governance, from Ronald Reagan to the elder George Bush to Clinton, helped it rebound to about 45 percent by the 2000 election. But after a brief spike following the attacks on 9/11, trust in the government has once again declined. A Pew poll taken in January found the percentage of people who mostly trust the government to be a pathetic 26 percent, while 73 percent mostly distrust it.

The public is responding rationally to the manifest failure of the federal government to keep up its end of the implicit bargain politicians struck with their constituents. For all its regulatory expansiveness, the government failed to anticipate the economic collapse of 2008. Despite the warnings of budget gurus everywhere, it has failed to get its long-term fiscal house in order. Even as it hands out billions of dollars to special interest groups, it has failed to attend to the people’s most pressing problems. The IRS scandal suggests that the government is not even capable of respecting the most basic tenets of the rule of law.

No wonder House Republican backbenchers, elected in 2010, are skeptical about the viability of the political settlement hammered out across the presidencies of FDR, LBJ, and Reagan. The bipartisan regime of low taxes, high spending, and sensible regulation that has governed politics since the New Deal is crumbling, slowly but surely. It is House Republicans who seem to have intuited this most clearly.

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