A Repudiation, But of What?

November 10, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Star Telegram on November 10, 2008.

Tuesday’s massive Democratic landslide cannot be seen as anything but a repudiation of the Republican Party’s tenure in power. Combined with the equally large Democratic victory in 2006, Republicans have now lost the presidency, more than 50 House seats, and at least a dozen seats in the Senate in just two years.

Pundits on both left and right are saying that this represents a final verdict on the Bush administration’s eight years in office.

But, how far beyond the Bush presidency does the voters’ desire for change go? If voters have clearly rejected Republicans, have they also turned against the whole idea of conservatism — at least as defined by a belief in limited government?

To suggest that in electing Barack Obama and a Democratic congressional majority, voters were choosing big government and liberalism over small government and conservatism would imply that either the Bush administration, the current Republican congressional leadership, or, for that matter, John McCain, actually supported smaller government.

But even before the Wall Street bailout, President Bush spent money in a way that would make any liberal proud.

When Bush took office, the federal budget totaled $1.9 trillion. This year it will top $3 trillion, with a deficit of nearly $400 billion. And that was before the massive bailout of Wall Street.

Under President Bush, domestic discretionary spending has increased faster than under any president since Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society.

Not a single major government program or agency was eliminated.

According to an analysis of 25 major government programs by USA Today, enrollment increased an average of 17 percent in the programs, while the nation’s population grew by only 5 percent.

This increase represents the largest five‐​year expansion of the welfare state since the Great Society in the 1960s. Spending on these social programs is up an inflation‐​adjusted 22 percent since President Bush took office. Growing enrollment was responsible for most of the spending increase, but higher benefits also contributed.

The Bush administration strong‐​armed Congress into passing the first new entitlement program in 40 years, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit that could add as much as $11.2 trillion to the program’s unfunded liabilities. The administration dramatically increased federal control over local schools while increasing federal education spending by nearly 61 percent. Farm price supports, pork‐ barrel spending and earmarks all increased under Bush.

Nor has Bush been a champion of deregulation.

In fact, one searches in vain for a major piece of deregulation that passed during the last eight years. On the contrary, it was the Bush administration that pushed through Sarbanes‐​Oxley and other regulatory measures. Overall, the Bush administration has added more than 7,000 pages of regulations to the Federal Register.

True, President Bush did push through some modest tax cuts. But they were tiny when measured against total tax revenues — just 1.6 percent of the government’s take. In 2006, federal taxes represented 18.4 percent of GDP, just one‐​tenth of a percent less than they did in 1995, during the Clinton administration.

By almost every measure, government grew bigger, more expensive and more intrusive under President Bush and the Republican Congress.

McCain may have rhetorically criticized government spending, notably earmarks, but he consistently backed bigger and more activist government, whether backing the Wall Street bailout or calling for a $300 billion bailout of delinquent mortgages. By most measures he supported only slightly less government spending than did Obama.

Polls show that Republican losses were heaviest among upscale suburban voters who tend to be economically conservative but socially moderate. These formerly reliable Republican voters did not suddenly decide that they wanted a bigger, more expensive and more intrusive government. Faced with the big‐​government status quo or big‐​government “change,” they opted for change.

John McCain and George W. Bush lost this election.

But a rejection of Reagan‐​Goldwater style small‐​government conservatism?

Not in the least.

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