Once upon a time, the Republican Party stood for the idea that government is best that governs least. If this week's presidential debate of GOP hopefuls tells us anything, it's that the only difference between the parties is not if government should get more involved in our lives, but how. They might as well have declared in unison, "The era of small government is over."
The tenor of the evening was set by the very first question, which asked the candidates about the revelation that the killers of Columbine loved the computer game "Doom." What should we do about such violence in computer games? "Ban 'em!" they cried. This should not have surprised. In earlier debates and appearances, those same candidates, without a single exception, have called for federal censorship of the movie industry and all corners of the Internet. Apparently, Republicans are happy to bray on and on about the need for people to take responsibility for their actions . . . unless, of course, they're talking about delinquent teens or their parents. Nothing wrong with America that a federal gag won't supposedly cure.
One of the more grating discussions during the debate surrounded the issue of the so-called farm crisis, which is to say, the "crisis" of falling food prices. Lower grocery bills were decried, not celebrated, and it was up to Tom Brokaw (he of the "liberal media elite") to ask the question Republicans are supposed to ask: why should the government care any more about bankrupt farms than about bankrupt shoe stores? According to Alan Keyes, who led the candidates in the cheerleading to come, farmers are the wellsprings of morality and they deserve bailouts until the cows come home because, without them, America would sink into debauchery and decay. Apparently, he's never lived in rural America. I have, and I can tell you with authority that he's nuts. Little-known fact: Iowans are one of the largest per capita consumers of pornography in the nation.
The rest of the crowd, with the exception of John McCain, followed right along with one variation or another of this self-serving nonsense. And where was that free marketeer, Steve Forbes? He'd pour even more federal money into agricultural subsidies and give the ethanol program until 2007 before passing judgment. But let's get real. Ethanol subsidies have been in place for 20 years, and according to the Department of Agriculture, every $1 of extra farm income generated by the ethanol program costs consumers $4. Forbes knows that, but he's so bitten by the presidential bug that he'll promise anything -- to launch a new populist war against hard money or even initiate federal antitrust suits against commodity interests -- to get votes in Iowa. But you can't square William Jennings Bryan pitchfork populism with limited government.
The most bizarre notes of the evening, however, were struck on the familiar GOP themes of patriotism and religion, the lack of which are apparently responsible for every single problem of significance in America today. That Locke-quoting maven of limited government, Steve Forbes, declared that he would support laws to force unwilling students to repeat the pledges to liberty in the Declaration of Independence. Bush, however, did him one better by declaring that the political philosopher who most shaped his ideas was Christ, "who touched my heart." Well, perhaps Christ touched his heart, but how he touched his head went unanswered.
Or maybe it didn't. Government's job, according to Bush, "is to change hearts." That would certainly surprise our founding fathers, who once thought that government's job was to secure the individual liberties of its citizens. You see, changing the heart is the job description of churches, not governments. Significantly, the central tenet of Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is to put certain "faith-based institutions" on the federal dole. You might call that sort of policy a lot of things, but one thing you can't call it is "limited government."
Like most of the candidates, John McCain spent his time going hither and yon, threatening to reduce government a wee bit here (some pork-barrel items in the federal budget), massively expand it there (promising to jail people for using their own money to criticize candidates immediately before an election), and bring it to the brink of war everywhere. And to underscore McCain's strange brand of conservatism, he declares that government is vitally necessary to give purpose to the lives of 20-somethings. This brand of woolly minded governmental messianism is more Kennedy than Reagan. But then again, it fits perfectly with the GOP at the end of the 20th century.