Is limited government passe?

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BIG GOVERNMENT SERIES/Last of three parts: The future of limited-government conservativism

President Bush stood in front of several thousand Republican donors in downtown Washington in mid-June and blasted the Democrats for breaking promises to rein in government spending.

“When the Democrats campaigned in 2006, they promised fiscal responsibility,” Mr. Bush said.

The president told the audience that if they wanted to avoid “a bigger tax bill and bigger government,” they should work hard to help elect Sen. John McCain as president.

Yet even Mr. McCain’s top aides are lamenting the political headwinds they are fighting because of the Republican Party’s excessive spending during the Bush presidency.

“It’s left a terrible legacy for the party,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the Arizona senator’s senior economic adviser, in an interview.

Revisit parts I and II here:

Part II MONDAY: • Pentagon spending growth outpaces auditors

Part I SUNDAY: • Big government gets bigger

The greater concern for some conservatives, however, beyond this election cycle, is that America may no longer care about the government’s size, scope and role.

The traditional conservative idea of limited government no longer pricks the electorate’s ears, Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.

“You can’t start by talking about smaller government. People don’t buy it,” he said.

David Frum, a former economic speechwriter for the Bush White House, agreed.

“America is a highly non-ideological country. And while there are some who care about government as a percentage of [the total economy], most Americans don’t care very much,” he said.

“If it gets to the European model and they tell you what to eat for breakfast, then they care,” Mr. Frum said. “But there’s a lot of leeway until Americans’ libertarian instincts kick in.”

Democrats are eager to agree with that sentiment.

“The era of limited government is over, for good reason, because there are a whole host of national priorities that the government needs to take the lead on,” said Faiz Shakir, a leading voice on the left who works for the Center for American Progress in Washington and also runs the ThinkProgress blog.

Mr. Shakir named health care and global warming as two of the top challenges the U.S. electorate wants solved. He argued that only the government can effectively address them.

Government already has grown more under President Bush than under any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Measuring by the rate of spending as a percentage of the total economy, or gross domestic product, Mr. Bush’s 4.4 percentage point increase outranks those of all presidents since FDR.

Most of the growth came after Sept. 11, 2001, as the Bush administration committed to spend as much as it needed to prevent another terrorist attack on American soil, although billions have been wasted because of a dysfunctional contracting system.

Now, with a full-blown economic crisis, the U.S. economy is heavily dependent on the federal government, propped up by loans, guarantees and cash from the Treasury Department’s attempts to avert a financial meltdown.

Many conservatives believe that the prospect of Democrat Barack Obama as president, with a Democratic supermajority in Congress, means a new age of government on steroids may just be in its infancy.

However, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican, said in an interview that the American people already have seen “the failure of big government” in the past several years.

“It is big government which tried to put people in houses they couldn’t afford, that gave Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac the ability to borrow and lend on a scale they couldn’t sustain,” Mr. Gingrich said, referring to efforts that began under President Clinton.

He also took aim at the interest-rate cutting of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, an ardent free-market capitalist.

“It was big government which was giving away money at one percent for two years and created an environment in which there was too much money in the system,” Mr. Gingrich said.

“So before I assume that our 200-year experiment with limited government and the rule of law is over, I would suggest we have no reason to believe the government is going to become more competent.”

So why has Mr. Obama gained such an advantage during the economic crisis?

“What you have right now is a country recoiling from George W. Bush into Obama,” Mr. Gingrich said. “The American people are substantially more conservative than either the Democratic Party or the elite media, but in this environment, everything is going to be drowned out.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, agreed.

“Philosophically the public wants to go with John McCain. It’s just the Bush brand has been so tarnished; the Republican brand has been so tarnished that people have been willing to consider things that they wouldn’t otherwise,” Mr. Brownback said in an interview.

Going forward, said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the conservative movement needs to “raise the expectations for our citizenry.”

“When people take responsibility for themselves and their families, there is less demand for government services. When we lower expectations for people, government grows,” said Mr. Bush, the president’s younger brother, by e-mail.

“Welfare is a good example. When the program was reformed to end cash payments after a certain period of time, people who were ‘dependent’ on government got jobs and went to work,” he said.

Path to the White House

The McCain-Palin ticket is engaged in a push over the campaign’s final days to hammer on Mr. Obama’s comment to Joe Wurzelbacher, aka “Joe the Plumber,” that he wants to “spread the wealth around.”

Mr. Shakir mocked the right’s talk of limited government, calling it pandering.

“That’s always been a political slogan and not a governing slogan,” he said. “When conservatives have taken over power, they’ve always shown they are as interested as Democrats in big government and expanding the scope of government.”

Even the president’s budget director, Jim Nussle, dismissed the idea of small-government conservatism as “somewhat simplistic,” arguing that conservatives should be “more results based.”

However, Mr. Nussle, director of the Office of Management and Budget, defended Mr. Bush’s conservative credentials.

“Possibly what you could say is that the president was a results conservative, that results mattered more than just the ideology, that the ideology is imperfect if all you’re trying to do is look at how much your inputs are and not what the results are,” Mr. Nussle said.

Mr. Bush’s increased government spending has opened the door to increased taxes, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, because the government must at some point find more revenue to pay for its expenditures.

Joe the Plumber gives the McCain campaign an easily understood narrative with which to portray Mr. Obama as a far-left liberal who wants to redistribute wealth from the upper class to the poor.

“My friends, when politicians talk about taking your money and spreading it around, you’d better hold on to your wallet,” Mr. McCain said at a rally Friday in Miami.

The Democratic Party’s response is that for too long the Republican Party has shown preference for the rich and superrich at the expense of the middle class and poor and that Reaganomics, in which wealth trickles down from the rich to the middle and lower classes, has not worked.

“We need policies that grow our economy from the bottom up so that every American, everywhere, has the chance to get ahead, not just the person who owns the factory, but the men and women who work on his factory floor; not just the CEO, but the secretary and the janitor. They deserve a break, too,” Mr. Obama said Friday at a rally in Roanoke.

And when it comes to the size and role of government, Democrats say Republicans have made the nation disillusioned about the government’s effectiveness but they would accept big government if it ran efficiently.

“For at least 30 years, Republicans have been telling the American people that government doesn’t work. Over the last eight years, they’ve seemed to try to do everything in their power to turn that into a reality,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, the powerful California Democrat who chairs the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee.

Can government work?

Mr. Shakir said that “those people who are clamoring for smaller government just don’t trust that government can do anything competently.”

He held up former Federal Emergency Management Director Michael Brown and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as Exhibits A and B of government failures.

“After eight years of watching the Brownies at FEMA and the Rumsfelds at Defense, it’s understandable,” Mr. Shakir said of voters’ frustrations.

As Democratic strategist Donna Brazile put it, “I cannot afford to have beer with someone who will force me as a taxpayer to pick up the tab and still be hung over later.”

Yet programs like Medicare and Medicaid, Mr. Shakir said, “are programs that are large, but people accept them. People get their checks on time.”

“If you put into office progressive leaders who function properly and do the job they’ve been assigned, then you have results that work for people, and then people will say, ‘We’ll grant you that the government in charge here is not a bad thing.’ ”

As Mr. Obama himself recently told a die-hard Republican small-business owner in Ohio, who said the economy was hurting his revenue: “You might want to try the Democrats for a change. We can’t do any worse.”

After winning majorities in both houses in 2006, Democrats hope to increase their advantages over Republicans and are expected to do so.

Some expect Republican losses to be enormous, with a possible 30-seat pickup in the House and the acquisition of a veto-proof majority in the Senate if the party gains nine seats.

Democrats hope that in addition to splintering the Republican base, the overspending and the waste of taxpayer dollars during the Bush years, along with abject failures such as the response to Hurricane Katrina, also have damaged and undercut the idea of limited government, which has been Republican bread and butter for decades.

Jeb Bush said that “the possibility of limited government also requires a zeal for reform.”

“The things government does have to be done better. Those that don’t have to be done should stop being done,” he said.

Hoping for 1994 redux

Even conservatives who believe the idea of smaller government still carries potency with the electorate recognize that the way back to a governing coalition built around that philosophy is not likely to come this election cycle.

Nevertheless, Mr. Gingrich said an Obama presidency and Democratic majority in Congress may lead to a repeat of the 1994 Republican revolution, which he helped lead.

“The challenge Obama will face if he wins is does he really go with [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi into a left-wing government, in which case, they’re likely to re-create the conditions of 1994, which led to the first Republican majority in 40 years? Or is he going to create a centrist majority?” Mr. Gingrich said.

“There’s every reason to believe the Reid, Pelosi, Obama team is as far to the left as they’ve said. I suspect you’ll see the re-emergence of conservatism very, very rapidly.”

Mr. Frum agreed with Mr. Shakir that on issues such as health care, the nation will be demanding answers.

“If we’re going to seek to limit government, we can’t do it without a credible health care plan, one that does not inflict deteriorating care on people,” Mr. Frum said.

Health care has surpassed taxes, Mr. Frum said, as a burning issue for the public.

“The American people will accept much bigger government than they now have in return for a health care solution. If we can’t think of an attractive solution, we should not be surprised if the country accepts a Democratic offer,” Mr. Frum said.

Mr. Gingrich, who considered a run at the White House this year and is a possible 2012 contender, agreed that Republicans must offer more than a party of naysayers.

“Don’t be the anti-left movement,” he said. “Offer a better vision of better solutions.”

Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, who has opposed many of the Bush administration’s signature big-spending packages, such as No Child Left Behind, the 2003 Medicare reform and most recently the economic rescue plan, said the conservative values of most Americans “haven’t been given a voice” at the White House or on Capitol Hill.

However, Mr. Pence said, the fact that Mr. McCain is within striking distance of Mr. Obama is “evidence of the resilience of these conservative ideals.”

“If [Mr. Obama’s] liberalism was connecting with the majority of the American people, he’d be ahead by 30 points,” Mr. Pence said.

Pork to entitlements

Another path back to prominence may be pork-barrel spending, one of Mr. McCain’s favorite hobbyhorses.

All fiscal experts agree that the pork-barrel spending that has so infuriated voters - such as Republican Sen. Ted Stevens’ $320 million “bridge to nowhere” - is not the most important issue in the long-term budget picture.

Eliminating all earmarks would eliminate only about $18 billion from the federal budget, which in 2009 will total at least $3.4 trillion.

And while earmarks total about $18 billion, the main three entitlement programs - Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare - together cost about $1.5 trillion in 2008.

Entitlements consumed 8.4 percent of gross domestic product in 2007 and are projected to eat up about 18 percent of GDP by 2050, which is the portion of the total economy traditionally consumed by the entire federal budget.

The tidal wave of 77 million retiring baby boomers entering a system with just 42 million retirees in it is behind the coming unsustainability of the entitlements program.

“Any first-grader can tell you these numbers don’t add up,” said Patrick Creadon, a documentary filmmaker whose new film, “I.O.U.S.A.,” tells the tale of America’s dire fiscal picture.

But many Republican strategists believe most voters won’t be roused over the mounting budget numbers in the trillions or by the even bigger numbers behind entitlements.

The numbers make their eyes glaze over, they say.

“Voters don’t vote on aggregate spending numbers. They just don’t. It’s too big,” Mr. Norquist said. “People vote on things that touch them.”

Yet many who are irate over pork-barrel spending could form a constituency that may begin to care about the issue of government growth and long-term entitlement insolvency, conservatives say.

In short, Mr. Norquist said, pork may be the issue that puts spending, and thereby entitlements, on the list of voters’ priorities.

“The reason [pork] has become such a big issue is that it’s insulting,” Mr. Norquist said. “It’s dissing voters: ‘You’re an idiot. We’re going to treat you like an idiot. We take your money and spend it in stupid ways, and you can’t do anything about it, and nobody cares what you think.’ ”

“That’s insulting. That can become a vote-moving issue,” he said. “Taxes are a vote-moving issue. Spend[ing] too much isn’t a vote-moving issue, yet. Spend in insulting and degrading ways, like a bridge to nowhere … that can be a vote-moving issue.”

Mr. Holtz-Eakin concurred.

“We start by making it about wasting people’s money and then talk about effective government,” he said.

However, Bob Barr, the former Republican congressman who is running for president on the Libertarian Party ticket, said entitlements are the issue causing many younger voters to wake up to the issue of big government.

“Younger people are the ones who are going to be shafted,” Mr. Barr said.

Nonetheless, he said, any path back to an era of limited government will require “a long period of education.”

“It’s not going to happen quickly.”

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