The Importance of the Limited Government Brand
Conor Friedersdorf responds to my points regarding the importance of limited government as the core to conservative reform. “But George W. Bush, the last Republican to win the presidency since 1988, and the last one to be reelected since 1984, was not a limited-government type on spending, civil liberties, or foreign policy. Nor were the winning Congresses of those years limited-government Congresses. They backed away from limited government under pressure, and won for a long time doing it. Where, then, does Domenech get the idea that the key to electoral success for Republicans is to "deliver on their limited government promises"?"
Simple: I don’t believe that the 2004 election, the only one where W. won the popular vote was a replicable event. It was a national security election more than anything else, and one could actually argue that Kerry overperformed given that. In the nine years since that election, the Republican brand has gone through a period of enormous upheaval, and has destroyed its standing as a part of competence and fiscal restraint. What led to the Republican Party getting destroyed in 2006 and 2008? I would argue it was: 1) too much government intervention overseas, 2) too much spending, 3) too much governmental incompetency, 4) too much governmental corruption, 5) All four, or some combination of them, or 6) none of the above. All four points go to the importance of limited government; you have to argue 6 in order to avoid an argument which rejects that view.
As Sean Trende has noted on numerous occasions, the Republican Party wins when it has an inherently populist message, as was clearly the case in 1994 and 2010. I’d argue Bush wrapping himself in the flag in 2004 amounted to this and was far more important than the vestiges of compassionate conservatism to his victory. But the inherent problem for the Republican Party over the past two decades has been the gap between those populist promises on the stump and their performance in office. Their promises on American security and traditional values have been largely met or at least defended; but on the third leg of the stool, the normal route is: 1) Promise to limit government, 2) Get elected, 3) Ignore promises and grow government, 4) Get thrown out of office, 5) What did you learn?
I view an important goal of conservative reform, for both electoral reasons and policy ones, as breaking that destructive cycle. The Republican coalition has survived and adapted as it faced one massive revolt over limited government issues. But parties can and do die, historically – and I am unsure the GOP can survive another Tea Party. Friedersdorf doesn’t think so: “If the GOP nominee in 2016 is a statist whose commitment to limited government is dubious and goes no farther than rhetoric, I expect Republican voters will support him or her overwhelmingly.” Of course this will likely happen, given that we just saw President Romney overwhelmingly supported by those white voters in Ohio in 2012. Perhaps he can help us with that.
[First published at Real Clear Politics]