- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

Conservative Republicans are getting back to basics this year after eight years of big-spending government that tarnished their brand name, eroded their base and toppled their party from majority rule in Congress.

Chastened by their steep descent from power and acknowledging that their party “lost its way” during George W. Bush’s presidency, conservative Republican leaders, such as Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference, do not mince words about what happened and the painful lessons they learned.

“Americans fired [the] big-government Republicanism of George W. Bush. Big-government Republicanism is a failed political experiment,” Mr. Pence told The Washington Times this week.

Under that experiment, Republicans voted for a huge expansion of government that included the Medicare prescription drug plan that added $44 billion to the federal budget last year at a time when Medicare is about to undergo massive growth when the nation’s baby boom generation begins signing up for the medical insurance program.

That followed a huge increase in the size of the Department of Education and a more expanded government role in local education policies with the enactment of Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which pushed federal education spending from $42.2 billion in 2001 to $54.4 billion in 2007.

A succession of ever-mounting appropriations bills, loaded with billions of dollars in pork-barrel projects, ballooned federal spending from $1.8 trillion in 2001 to $3 trillion in 2008. The federal deficit this year was projected to be more than $1.2 trillion, before any of President Obama’s record-breaking stimulus expenditures are added to the budget.

Republican leaders now say they have learned a lesson from their mistakes, and early votes on the Obama administration’s economic agenda suggest they have returned to the Reagan agenda of tax cuts and spending restraints.

House Republicans were united in their opposition to Mr. Obama’s nearly $800 billion economic stimulus bill. Their alternative economic recovery bill called instead for tax cuts on income and tax breaks for business expansion. This week, Republican leaders proposed a federal spending freeze in response to administration plans to reduce looming deficits by cutting defense spending and raising the top two income-tax rates on workers and small businesses.

“Stopping out-of-control spending here in Washington, not increasing taxes on families and small businesses or endangering our troops and their mission, is the responsible way to tackle the deficit,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio.

But many conservatives remained skeptical that Republican leaders have fully mended their ways or that disenchanted voters were ready to return to the party fold.

“The jury’s still out on whether Republicans are going to get back to their core conservative principles, or if they are going to stick with their gimmick of the month routine,” said Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government.

“The party has not necessarily seen their bottom yet, and if the 2006 and 2008 elections were not a wake-up call to listen to their constituents, they will continue to fall out of favor with the American people.”

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