Commentary

GOP has a New Newt

No more than six years after Ronald Reagan left the political stage, the party that once held that “government is not the solution; government is the problem” is now adrift in a sea of ideological confusion.

Liberal pundits have, quite rightly, observed that Reaganism is a dead letter in Congress and that Bill Clinton’s vision of activist government reigns almost unchallenged on Capitol Hill today. But if Reagan’s call for smaller and more localized government ends up in the dustbin of political history, it will not be because it was defeated at the polls - Bush’s presidency and subsequent 1992 campaign hardly deigned to raise the Reaganite banner. Rather, Republican politicians seem simply to have lost faith in the Goldwater-Reagan vision of America. The most significant Republican dissent from old-time religion today is perhaps that of the defacto House GOP leader, Newt Gingrich. Once the intellectual leader of the conservative “young turks” on the Hill, Gingrich increasingly seems to have made his peace with big government, proposing to lead congressional Republicans into what he sees as a more reasonable, constructive statism and away from principled anti-government politics.

In his appearance with Labor Secretary Robert Reich on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” on April 24, the “new Newt” was on full public display. Following Reich’s pitch to “reinvent” federal job training and unemployment insurance by expanding governmental intervention in labor markets, Gingrich agreed that, by and large, “what Secretary Reich is trying to do in retraining is right.”

Panelist Al Hunt, sensing a contradiction between Reich’s government activism and Gingrich’s legendary conservatism, asked the congressman, “What role does government play? Now, as a conservative, you basically want to minimize the role of government.” Gingrich tartly replied, “No.”

Asked by a startled Hunt to elaborate, Gingrich said that “government plays a huge role” in society and that “anybody who believes in the American Constitution ought to believe in a fairly strong government.”

Yet the Constitution is a document of enumerated powers, and one is hard pressed to find where in that document “job training” powers are granted to the federal government. Of course, the Constitution has been widely interpreted in recent years as allowing the government to do anything it pleases unless its action conflicts with certain amendments in the Bill of Rights. Yet even then, the government is allowed to violate those rights if it passes some sort of “balancing test,” such as, “Will the ends justify the means?” That’s hardly the sort of government our Founders envisioned when they left Philadelphia in 1787. In fact, it was a “fairly strong government” that the Constitution was designed to protect us against.

Gingrich was quick to say that, although he has no particular beef with big government, he does have a problem with big bureaucracies.

How to square those two seemingly incompatible impulses? Instead of building up a massive client support network for government dependents, Gingrich prefers to directly subsidize government’s clients while cutting out the bureaucratic middle man.

That may well be more efficient - although our farm support programs were established along the Gingrich model and today there are more agricultural bureaucrats than there are full-time farmers - but it begs the question of government’s proper role in society. And it is that question, after all, that is the heart of “the vision thing” that Republicans have lost since 1988.

Gingrich proposes that the federal government “play a very powerful role in shaping the market” where “we have a long tradition of doing things that are clever.” Yet “markets” are simply places where people come together to freely exchange goods and services to pursue their own ends as they see fit. Whenever government gets the idea that it can cleverly manipulate those exchanges, disaster is sure to follow. The S&L collapse, agricultural welfarism, urban decay and multibillion-dollar boondoggles such as the Synfuels program, to name just a few of hundreds of such examples, are the unintended consequences of government’s meddling in economic activities that it knows little about and understands even less.

Secretary Reich was quick to embrace his new ally. “I agree with that completely,” he said throughout the show. As well he should, for at bottom there is little difference between Gingrich’s “market shaping” agenda and Clinton’s governmental activism. The end - government involvement in virtually every aspect of economic life - is the same. Only the means differ, and then only slightly. In comparison with Ronald Reagan’s eloquent case for dynamic capitalism and individual liberty, Gingrich’s vision of the GOP as the “Mr. Goodwrench” of the welfare state offers not a choice but an echo of Clinton’s vision of activist government.

Jerry Taylor is Director of Natural Resources Studies at the Cato Institute.