There was a time when both of the major parties stood for things worthwhile. Now is not such a time. Republicans used to focus on the enumerated powers of government: the Constitution limited the role of government in our society and the GOP thought that was good. Democrats tended to focus more on the Bill of Rights (or some of them) and were defenders of freedom of speech and civil liberties.
Republicans fought excessive red tape and the bureaucracy. Democrats warned of the dangers of the promiscuous use of military force around the world. All that was laudable. And all that has changed.
Today there seems to be no aspect of civil society that either party would place beyond the reach of the federal leviathan. Neither Barry Goldwater nor Ronald Reagan believed there was a federal role in education in America. Now, GOP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott whines that Bill Clinton is not giving Lott’s party credit for the billions of dollars it wants to spend on local education. Democrats today would trample the First Amendment in the name of “campaign finance reform” and politically correct speech codes. Republicans offer bills to provide federal funding for pre‐divorce counseling. Democrats cheer Bill Clinton’s utterly undisciplined use of military force for “humanitarian” reasons, collateral damage be damned. Both parties are unwilling to admit that Social Security must be privatized.
It’s all very disheartening for those of us who advocate limited government and individual liberty. Perhaps most disturbing has been the virtual collapse of the GOP as a defender of a constitutionally limited role for the federal government. For better or for worse (for worse, as it turns out), the Republican Party has been perceived as the major party advocating less government for most of this century. Why has the GOP seemingly thrown in the towel with respect to limiting the size and scope of government?
The answer lies, at least partially, in several tacks the GOP has taken on the path of least resistance:
The Balanced Budget Obsession. Many conservatives, confronted with continuous federal deficits, found it was easier to don the mantle of fiscal responsibility than to argue the merits of a given program. Rather than debate whether a federal school lunch program was within the scope of legitimate federal power (who can be against hungry poor kids, after all?), it was far easier to point out that we simply didn’t have the money to fund the program.
The Supply‐Side Revolution. When Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Vin Weber, Connie Mack, 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 gave them a free pass out of the debate over the proper role of government. Just cut taxes and grow the economy: government will shrink as a percentage of GDP, even if you don’t cut spending. That’s why you rarely, if ever, heard Kemp or Gingrich call for spending cuts, much less the elimination of programs and departments.
Both the fiscal conservatives and the supply‐siders would have done well to remember Milton Friedman’s admonishment that the true tax on the American people is the level of government spending, whether it is financed by taxes or by borrowing.
The Scandalmongers. Another cop‐out in the battle of ideas is to focus on opponents’ scandals rather than the issues. This approach was particularly appealing 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 and opted instead for the expected windfall from President Clinton’s scandals. Meanwhile, the Democrats ran on issues (bad ones to be sure, but issues nonetheless) and for their efforts picked up seats in the House.
The Judicial Restraint Crowd. The Supreme Court is the ultimate venue in the battle for limited government. It was to be, in James Madison’s words, the “bulwark” of our liberties against the majoritarian onslaught from the two political branches of the federal government. But even here the conservatives who dominate the GOP are raising the white flag. Burned by such decisions as Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, GOP conservatives created out of whole cloth a judicial philosophy intended to eviscerate the power of the Court.
Robert Bork and Justice Antonin Scalia are the intellectual leaders of the “judicial restraint” crowd, which claims adherence to “original intent” but which in practice would radically restrict the role of one of the three branches of the federal government, thus undermining the Framers’ carefully calculated balance of power. Scalia believes, for instance, that the General Welfare Clause effectively gives plenary power to Congress to intervene in civil society wherever it pleases. Yet it was Madison who said that an expansive interpretation of the General Welfare Clause would turn the Constitution on its head.
A proper role of the Supreme Court is to take seriously the Enumerated Powers Doctrine and the Tenth Amendment and actively strike down legislation that is outside the powers granted Congress in Article 1, Section 8, of 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 the Republicans and Democrats morph into one party that micro‐manages 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.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 1999 edition of Cato Policy Report.