Hopefuls should out-Reagan Reagan

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The shock of Republicans’ repudiation in the November 2006 midterm elections has not worn off -- and one year later, it is shaping how they contest the 2008 elections. The lesson the GOP believes it learned is especially clear on domestic policy. Between the big, expensive programs inspired by compassionate conservatism and pork-barrel spending on bridges to nowhere, “we lost our brand,” one Republican official lamented. “We are in the wilderness because we walked away from the limited-government principles that minted the Republican Congress,” Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana told his GOP colleagues after the midterms.

In response, the men seeking the 2008 GOP presidential nomination have largely turned that race into a contest over which candidate can best remind primary voters of Ronald Reagan, the model small-government Republican. Mitt Romney says, “We must return to the common-sense Reagan Republican ideals.” “What we’re lacking is strong, aggressive, bold leadership, like we had with Ronald Reagan,” observes Rudy Giuliani. As for Fred Thompson, one of his campaign aides says there is “no reason to force the comparison with Reagan” because it speaks for itself. Indeed, one of the “draft Fred” websites that appeared over the summer was

The competing claims to be a “Reagan conservative” reflect the candidates’ efforts to identify themselves as the most ardent “limited-government conservative.” But in doing so, they make a mistake. What they fail to understand is that Reagan himself was not a terribly effective Reaganite, and that despite his rhetoric, his success at limiting government was itself pretty limited.

In his inaugural address in 1981, Reagan said, “It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people.” In his farewell address eight years later, the president said, “[M]an is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.”


But in between the two speeches, government did nothing but expand. In 1981, the federal government spent $678 billion; in 1989 it spent $1.144 trillion. Factoring out inflation, that was an increase of 19% in real spending. Republicans never expected that Reagan would leave office with a “federal establishment” one-fifth larger than when he arrived.

Federal spending, of course, didn’t grow just during the Reagan presidency. The Office of Management and Budget’s tables show year-to-year federal outlays, adjusted for inflation, decreasing only 11 times between 1940 and 2006. Three of the declines came during the demobilization after World War II, three more after the Korean War and one in 1969 after spending for the Vietnam War crested. The other four reductions were isolated and brief interruptions in the relentless growth of government.

In the 1980s, conservatives charged that the Democratic Congress was frustrating the Republican president’s efforts to limit government. In the next decade, they said the Democratic president was frustrating the Republican Congress’ efforts to rein in federal spending. Then, for the first time in 50 years, Republicans controlled both Congress and the presidency from 2003 through 2006 -- and real federal spending increased 10%.

All the Republican presidential candidates trying to out-Reagan each other argue that the GOP’s spectacular failure to corral big government when the party controlled the government was caused by tepid devotion to the principles of limited government. Only by rededicating themselves to those principles, the candidates say, will they be able to reclaim their brand and chance for success.

It’s a sound premise, but only to the extent that the candidates can plausibly out-Reagan Reagan. If the commitment to limiting government is the decisive factor, things in the 1980s should have turned out a lot better for conservatives than they did. The GOP candidates who suggest that they will succeed where Reagan failed are implying that the Gipper spent too much time on the sidelines during the contest against big government. The problem with this is not that it flunks the piety test but that it flunks the laugh test -- Ronald Reagan was not just pretending to be a Reagan Republican.

Life in the political wilderness is unpleasant, but it does afford time for reflection. Republicans could use this time profitably by considering whether the forlorn cause of limited government could be better served by fighting smarter rather than just fighting harder.


The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the long list of conservative politicians who failed to limit government weren’t feckless, but practical. The first thing an officeholder who wants to curtail government must do is . . . hold office.

One of the staples of public-opinion studies is that Americans are “ideologically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” We dislike big government in general, but particular constituencies are always eager to defend and are happy to expand programs that benefit them.

The political challenge for conservatives is this: Rather than allowing skirmishes about hundreds of different programs to indirectly determine the size of government, they need to shape the debate over the fate of individual programs in terms of the proper extent of the government’s responsibilities. For instance, the earned income tax credit is popular among liberals and conservatives. Its political invulnerability shows that liberals have won the argument over whether the government has an obligation to help needy people. It also shows, however, that conservatives have won the argument against the belief in a “right” to public assistance that cannot be qualified by any distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor.

The earned income credit’s popularity suggests that conservatives could also win the argument in favor of means-testing entitlement programs. A nation wealthy enough to have a welfare state is wealthy enough to have lots of people who don’t need most of what the welfare state provides. And a nation decent enough to maintain programs like the tax credit is decent enough to care for its poor citizens without bribing affluent taxpayers with entitlement benefits they don’t need.

American liberals wake up every morning thinking about all the suffering and injustice they could alleviate if only the public sector didn’t have to scrape by with 32% of our gross domestic product. The trouble is, Sweden’s social democrats wake up every morning thinking about all the suffering and injustice they could alleviate if only their public sector weren’t forced to scrape by with 55% of GDP -- and American liberals have little to say about what they find objectionable or excessive about this Scandinavian model.

Rather than waiting for the next Ronald Reagan, conservatives might do their cause more good by pressing liberals to answer these questions: What would be enough? When does the welfare state reach the point that it doesn’t need one more budget increase? One more new program? One more percentage point of the GDP?


William Voegeli is a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Henry Salvatori Center.