|February 22, 2010|
|Since When Have Republicans Been For Small Government?|
|By Jon Gingerich|
|The 37th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) wrapped up this weekend in Washington, D.C., and as many guessed it was a huge success, with early estimates citing the largest attendance in the conference’s history. What was once a relatively modest gathering of core party thinkers has since mushroomed into a who’s who of the conservative movement, showcasing stalwart party speakers such as Dick Armey, Glenn Beck, Mitt Romney, Andrew Breitbart, Newt Gingrich, Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter. |
The turnout also revealed a surprising diversity among CPAC habitués, which for more than strength in numbers alone could signal a major shift within the movement. For the first time, the conference drew large factions that typically lie on the conservative periphery, assorted wing nuts like the prodigious Tea Party Movement, the Oath Keepers, the Free State Project, various Midwest militia groups, and 25-year-old Ron Paul supporters who live in their parents’ basement.
For the most part, CPAC’s riled-up reclamations against “socialized” government retained its predictable dog-and-pony show format, but the unified anathema of anything “big government” should be noted for its ability to bridge conservative camps this year, from east coast politicians to the garden variety Tea Partier, in general ideological practice or as a reaction to specific, recent events such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
As much as Tea Partiers romantically envision themselves as Rooseveltian vanguards of small government, they’ve become uncharacteristically obsequious to their beltway counterparts in many ways, and it’s for this reason they can be seen as new pawns in an old game of conservative constituent hunting. There is a reason why Republican Party leaders have begun courting them in recent months after treating them like ugly cousins for the better part of a year prior, or why politicians like Sarah Palin have since poached their ideological underpinnings to serve as mummification for her own floundering political career.
The fact is, “small government” has never been a particular concern for Republican Party leaders. Though the phrase has been used repeatedly for its populist tenor, the Republican leaders’ M.O. of the past 35 years has been to expand the presence of government at virtually every impasse, and a brief historic of party policy shows the rallying cry to be a meaningless clause with mythological roots, delivered by pandering politicians who have no intention of implementing what they say into practice.
We can start with Nixon, an architect of modern Republican ideology whose penchant for “socialized” services dwarfed Obama’s by a hilarious degree. Nixon established “big” agencies like the EPA, the CPSC and OSHA, and drastically expanded the powers of existing agencies like the Office of Management and Budget.
He introduced the Section 8 housing voucher program and implemented affirmative action predecessor The Philadelphia Plan. He increased direct Medicare and Social Security payments to individuals by 2.6% and pumped up pay for federal employees. He introduced a health insurance plan where employers had to buy insurance for their workers. He even implemented wage and price controls.
He signed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and to further corporate chagrin authorized the Clean Air Act. Nixon revolutionized America’s agricultural policies by giving massive federal subsidies to farmers, substantially lowering the cost of many consumer food products. Food aid and public assistance rose during Nixon’s reign by $2.5 billion. Defense spending decreased by 3.3%. In today’s Tea Party terms, Nixon was as “socialist” as they come.
Next we have Reagan, typically viewed by party ideologues as godfather of the Republican “revolution” for his hatred of education and the environment, boisterous defense spending and quick proselytizing about the power of small tax and equally small government.
History has a funny way of remembering Reagan, who initially cut taxes during his first year in Office (when budget projections allowed him to do so), and then continued to raise them each year for the remainder of his two terms. Reagan’s tax hikes hit $1 billion within three years (when adjusted for inflation, they beat Clinton’s historic tax hikes of 1993). He then imposed a heavy tax on gas, removed tax loopholes for businesses and introduced giant payroll taxes. During his second term, he signed the largest corporate tax increase in history – $120 billion over the course of five years (as Governor of California, he similarly signed the state’s largest tax increase).
Reagan wrote the blueprint for contemporary Republicans’ “small government” creed, an illusory practice of “shrinking” government by decentralizing internal (re: “closet socialist”) agencies, while effectively doubling the ones that further their political agenda. Federal spending ballooned under Reagan, from $590 billion in 1980 to $1.14 trillion in 1988. The number of federal employees grew by 8%, or by 61,000 (by comparison, these number fell by 373,000 under Clinton).
Reagan also expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and gave Social Security a $165 billion bailout. He imposed historic tariffs, bolstered military spending and drove up our national debt, forcing the country to survive on foreign loans. Small government indeed.
George H.W. Bush picked up where Nixon left off, raising unemployment benefits and pumping up welfare funds to historic highs. He signed what is typically viewed as one of the biggest civil rights bills in history, the Americans with Disabilities Act. He reauthorized Nixon’s Clean Air Act and increased funding for our highways. Faced with the unsavory task of cleaning up Reagan’s irresponsible deficit, he drew fire from his own ranks when he famously backpedaled on his “no new taxes” pledge.
It’s hard to know where to begin with George W. Bush. From the early days of his administration, Bush was poised to revive the 1981 tax cuts imposed by Reagan but in the course of doing so managed to add $345 billion to the federal budget, a record only paralleled when he added another $290 to it during his second term. By the end of his presidency, the national debt had increased 100% from when he took office.
He increased funding for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and he signed a $7 trillion Medicare drug benefit program. He buffeted state funding on education services with No Child Left Behind.
Bush also continued the Republican practice of increasing the presence of “big government” vis-à-vis swaps with the private sector, a trend that began when Reagan appointed Don Regan, former Merrill Lynch CEO, to Treasury Secretary and later Chief of Staff. Bush’s Treasury Department staff roster alone looked like a yearbook for big bank executives, and the benefits became instantly obvious: under Bush historic bailouts were engineered for banks, financial institutions and automakers.
Running as far away from the Republican ethos as possible, Bush mandated increased regulation of private enterprise, including a Federal takeover of stockholder owner agency Fannie Mae. He gave the NSA the authority to spy on Americans without a warrant. He disabled marketplace competition by giving no-bid handouts to corporate ties during the administration’s conquests in the Middle East.
The Republican Party has always done a marvelous job of mobilizing the masses with rhetoric to drive poll numbers. In fact, it’s that knack for visceral, emotive response that Democrats could someday take note of. This case is no different. By outsourcing Tea Partiers’ “white burden” as a cause célèbre, the Republican Party has hitched a ride on the mentality of lynch mobs and driven it to critical mass.
Where were the Tea Partiers when our Republican leaders were spending tax dollars to bail out the banks? Where was the predictable patter comparing the President to Adolph Hitler, the gross confusion of contemporary “socialized” nations with Germany’s National Socialism (née Nazism) in the 1930s, when Reagan installed the largest tax increases since World War 2?
The fact is, Republicans endorse a model of small government when it suits their needs. Republicans are all-too-quick to use government to interfere in the lives of others when it comes to pro-life legislation, abolishing same-sex marriage, dissolving the lines between church and state, enacting legislation that prohibits the sale of generic drugs or jerry-rigging federal subsidies programs to give payouts to their corporate interests.
The trained, manufactured hatred of “big government,” the Pavlovian conditioning to scream “socialism” whenever a new tax on the rich threatens the Ayn Randian nightmare pumped through every paint-by-numbers talking point on the a.m. radio dial, has become the biggest con job in modern history by a political party bent on duping their own constituents. My hat is off to them. It’s one hell of a trick.
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