Commentary

GOP, Remember Big Government?

As George W. Bush and Al Gore began their presidential campaigns last week, it was no surprise that their rhetoric sounded similar. The parties they hope to lead are more alike with each passing day. From the fall of the independent counsel law and mushy Social Security “reform” to acquiescence to United Nations demands and post-Littleton talk of media regulation, the two parties are becoming indistinguishable.

There was a time when each party stood for worthwhile principles. Republicans focused on the enumerated powers of government and the constitutionally limited role of government in our society. Democrats focused on parts of the Bill of Rights and defended free speech and civil liberties.

It was all laudable, and it has all changed.

Larger government role creeping back

Today, there is no aspect of civil society that either party would place beyond the reach of the tentacles of the federal leviathan. Neither Barry Goldwater nor Ronald Reagan believed the federal government had a role in education. Now, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott whines that Bill Clinton is not giving the GOP credit for the billions it wants to spend on local education. Today’s Democrats would trample the First Amendment in the name of “campaign finance reform” and politically correct speech codes.

It’s quite disheartening for those of us who advocate limited government and individual liberty. Most disturbing has been the collapse of the GOP as a defender of a constitutionally limited role for the federal government. Why has the GOP thrown in the towel? The answer lies, at least partially, in the GOP’s path of least resistance:

The balanced-budget obsession. Many conservatives, confronted with continuous federal deficits, found it easier to don the mantle of fiscal responsibility than argue the merits of a given program. Rather than debate whether a school lunch program was within the scope of legitimate federal power, it was simpler to point out that we lacked funds for the program.

The supply-side revolution. When Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Vin Weber and the rest discovered Jude Wanniski and Art Laffer, they thought they’d died and gone to heaven. In supply-side economics, they found a philosophy that offered an escape from the debate over government’s proper role. Just cut taxes and grow the economy, and government will shrink as a percentage of gross domestic product, even without spending cuts.

Both fiscal conservatives and supply-siders would have done well to remember Milton Friedman’s admonition that the true tax on the American people is the level of government spending, whether it is financed by taxes or borrowing.

Scandals take precedence over real issues

The scandalmongers. Another cop-out is to focus on opponents’ scandals rather than the issues. This approach appealed to Gingrich, who vowed never to give a speech without mentioning Monica Lewinsky. The 1998 elections were a disaster for the GOP precisely because the party’s leadership abandoned the small-government rhetoric of 1994.

The judicial-restraint crowd. The Supreme Court is the ultimate venue in the battle for limited government. But even here, conservatives are raising the white flag. Instead of approaching a decision such as Roe vs. Wade with a principled attack on the court’s legal reasoning, they paint it as an example of “judicial activism” and call for an evisceration of the court’s power.

The Supreme Court’s proper role is to take seriously the enumerated powers and the 10th Amendment and actively strike down legislation that is outside the powers granted Congress in the Constitution. We need principled judicial activism. “Judicial restraint,” as advocated by many conservatives, is yet another capitulation in what should be a battle of ideas over the role of government in a free society.

Before Republicans and Democrats morph into one party that micromanages our lives from Washington, the GOP needs to reclaim responsibility for the defense of limited government. By continuing on its current path, it is merely slouching toward irrelevance.

Edward H. Crane is president of the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.