Commentary

The Bush Betrayal

This article was published in The Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2003.

In 2000 George W. Bush campaigned across the country telling voters: “My opponent trusts government. I trust you.”

Little wonder that some of his supporters are now wondering which candidate won that election.

Federal spending has increased by 23.7 percent since Bush took office. Education has been further federalized in the No Child Left Behind Act. Bush pulled out all the stops to get Republicans in Congress to create the biggest new entitlement program — prescription drug coverage under Medicare — in 40 years.

He pushed an energy bill that my colleague Jerry Taylor described as “three parts corporate welfare and one part cynical politics … a smorgasbord of handouts and subsidies for virtually every energy lobby in Washington.”

It’s a far cry from the less-government, “leave us alone” conservatism of Ronald Reagan.

Conservatives used to believe that the U.S. Constitution set up a government of strictly limited powers.

It was supposed to protect us from foreign threats and deliver the mail, leaving other matters to the states or to the private sector — individuals, families, churches, charities and businesses.

That’s what lots of voters assumed they would get with Bush. In his first presidential debate with Al Gore, Bush contrasted his own vision of tax reduction with that of his opponent, who would “increase the size of government dramatically.” Gore, Bush declared, would “empower Washington,” but “my passion and my vision is to empower Americans to be able to make decisions for themselves in their own lives.”

Bush was tapping into popular sentiment.

In fact, you could say that what most voters wanted in 2000 was neither Bush nor Gore but smaller government. A Los Angeles Times poll in September 2000 found that Americans preferred “smaller government with fewer services” to “larger government with many services” by 59 to 26 percent.

But that’s not what voters got. Leave aside defense spending and even entitlements spending: In Bush’s first three years, nondefense discretionary spending — which fell by 13.5 percent under Ronald Reagan — has soared by 20.8 percent. His more libertarian-minded voters are taken aback to discover that “compassionate conservatism” turned out to mean social conservatism — a stepped-up drug war, restrictions on medical research, antigay policies, federal subsidies for marriage and religion — and big-spending liberalism justified as “compassion.”

When they’re given a chance to vote, Americans don’t like big government.

Last November 45 percent of the voters in the most liberal state in the Union, Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts, voted to abolish the state income tax.

In January, Oregon’s liberal electorate rejected a proposed tax increase, 55 percent to 45 percent.

In September Alabama voters rejected Gov. Bob Riley’s $1.2 billion tax hike by 2 to 1.

California voters tossed out big-spending Gov. Gray Davis, and 62 percent of them voted for candidates who promised not to raise taxes to close the state’s deficit.

Bush and his aides should be worrying about the possibility that libertarians, economic conservatives and fed-up taxpayers won’t be in his corner in 2004 in the same numbers as 2000.

Republican strategists are likely to say that libertarians and economic conservatives have nowhere else to go. Many of the disappointed will indeed sigh a deep sigh and vote for Bush as a lesser evil.

But Karl Rove, who is fascinated by the role Mark Hanna played in building the post-1896 Republican majority, should remember one aspect of that era: In the late 19th century, the Democratic Party of Jefferson, Jackson and Cleveland was known as “the party of personal liberty.” More so than the Republicans, it was committed to economic and cultural laissez-faire and opposed to Prohibition, protectionism and inflation.

When the big-government populist William Jennings Bryan claimed the Democratic nomination in 1896, many assumed he would draw industrial workers from the Republicans and bring new voters to the polls. Instead, Bryan lost in a landslide, and turnout declined for the next few elections. As the more libertarian Democrats found less reason to go to the polls, the Republicans dominated national politics for the next 36 years.

It could happen that limited-government voters decide to stay home, or vote for an independent candidate in the mold of Ross Perot or Jesse Ventura or vote Libertarian.

They could even vote for an antiwar, anti-Patriot Act, socially tolerant Democrat.

Given a choice between big-government liberalism and big-government conservatism, the leave-us-alone voters might decide that voting isn’t worth the trouble.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and the author of Libertarianism: A Primer.