Commentary

Has Bush Trampled the Goldwater Legacy?

By Stephen Slivinski
September 4, 2004

Forty years ago, the GOP nominated Barry Goldwater to carry their flag into the 1964 presidential race. It was going to be an uphill battle, and everyone in the campaign knew it: U.S. voters were still too shocked by the assassination of President Kennedy to desire another change in leadership at the White House. President Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide despite the deep division in public opinion about his Vietnam policy.

What the aftermath of the 1964 election showed was that the principles of Barry Goldwater were not dead, although the candidate had been walloped at the polls. The principles of limited government spirited Ronald Reagan’s ascent to the governorship in California just two years later. And the climax, of course, was Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980.

It’s worth asking how President George W. Bush fits into this story. Both Goldwater and Reagan had a clear vision of a smaller and less-intrusive federal government. They were bold in their description of a different role for the national government: returning it to the boundaries outlined in the Constitution. Yet Bush’s actions in his first term have indicated little interest in scaling back or redefining the fundamental role of the government. Instead, he seems quite content to make peace with the welfare state.

Upon re-reading one of the most famous passages from Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, it should strike modern observers how similar the present White House occupant is with the Rockefeller Republicans and Great Society Democrats that Goldwater battled throughout his career.

Goldwater’s principle: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I wish to make it smaller.”

Bush’s record: Based his budgets on his “Management Agenda,” which gauges how successful an agency is at achieving its “goals” for the year. The assumption is that the federal government should do virtually everything it currently does, only more efficiently. Bush’s most recent budget, for instance, sings the praises of the Departments of Education and Energy for their new streamlined form of big government. But the inflation-adjusted budgets for each of those agencies has grown: Energy by more than 25 percent, and Education by over 70 percent.

Goldwater’s principle: “I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom.”

Bush’s record: A Medicare drug benefit, the single biggest expansion of that program. Ever. And expenditures for “income security” programs increased more than 20 percent, in real terms, under his watch so far - five times faster than Reagan’s first term.

Goldwater’s principle: “It is not [my aim] to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution.”

Bush’s record: Not a single veto so far.

Finally, consider this: George W. Bush has presided over the largest increases in inflation-adjusted discretionary spending since Lyndon Johnson. At least in terms of government growth, the Republicans have nominated the type of politician their candidate of 40 years ago was trying to beat.

Some might argue that it was easy for Goldwater to espouse these principles as an insurgent candidate, waging a fight he knew he would lose. Yet Goldwater was a staunch defender of these principles as an elected senator. And Ronald Reagan was able to slice non-defense discretionary spending, in real dollar terms, during his first term in office, even as he faced Democratic control of the House. Bush, on the other hand, seems to have abandoned much of the pretense of a belief in limited government, and has done far less than he could have to limit the scope of the federal government even with a Republican-dominated Congress.

Like any incumbent president, it’s natural for Bush to run for a second term on the record of the first term. Unfortunately, the first term record can’t give much comfort to those fond of the Goldwater and Reagan vision of America.

Stephen Slivinski is director of budget studies at the Cato Institute.