[Posted by Karl]
This week’s defection of Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democrats predictably set off another round of factional flame wars within the Republican party. The mutual finger-pointing is well-known by now. So-called “moderates” or “reformers” claim the GOP has drifted rightward, or that it is now dominated by a social conervativism toxic to the larger body politic. Social conservatives respond that such critics are unprincipled, that the 2008 presidential nominee, Maverick-y reformer John McCain, was a big loser, and so on. We have heard it all before.
The debate was clarified for me by an exchange at Instapundit. Glenn Reynolds correctly noted that the social con agenda is, if anything, less strident than it was in the 1980s. Reader Neil Sorens responded that “the change in perception is that with fiscal conservatism abandoned, the only distinguishing characteristic of the Republican Party is now social conservatism.”
That perception may well be reflected in how voters saw the presidential candidates in 2008, placing Mike Huckabee as the most conservative candidate, despite his progressive-populist pitch on a number of economic issues. Voters placed Huckabee right next to then-Pres. Bush, and rightly so.
After all, Bush was the biggest spending president since Lyndon B. Johnson, arguably even bigger, and the biggest since Nixon after excluding defense spending. The No Child Left Behind act, the 2002 farm bill, the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit, the 2005 highway bill — the list of big spending bills goes on and on. As Nick Gillespie summarized in January:
If increases in government spending matter, then Mr. Bush is worse than any president in recent history. During his first four years in office — a period during which his party controlled Congress — he added a whopping $345 billion (in constant dollars) to the federal budget. The only other presidential term that comes close? Mr. Bush’s second term. As of November 2008, he had added at least an additional $287 billion on top of that (and the months since then will add significantly to the bill). To put that in perspective, consider that the spendthrift LBJ added a mere $223 billion in total additional outlays in his one full term.
If spending under Mr. Bush was a disaster, regulation was even worse. The number of pages in the Federal Registry is a rough proxy for the swollen expanse of the regulatory state. In 2001, some 64,438 pages of regulations were added to it. In 2007, more than 78,000 new pages were added. Worse still, argues the Mercatus Center economist Veronique de Rugy, Mr. Bush is the unparalleled master of “economically significant regulations” that cost the economy more than $100 million a year. Since 2001, he jacked that number by more than 70%. Since June 2008 alone, he introduced more than 100 economically significant regulations.
Specter was comfortable with all of this, as a true RINO; he voted for the trillion-dollar “stimulus” giveaway, just as he voted to water down the Bush tax cuts. One of his chief defenders, Sen. Olympia Snowe, stabbed House GOP moderates in the back by voting for the stimulus.
However, beyond the stimulus, the fact remains that most of the big-government items of the Bush Administration had substantial support from a Republican House and a Republican (or evenly-split) Senate.
That mindset can be found outside Congress, too. For example, “reformer” pundit David Frum — who called the Specter defection a “catastrophe” — also found the GOP opposition to the ginormous stimulus bill “brain dead.” He thinks the biggest expansion of an entitlement program since Johnson was the key to Bush’s reelection in 2004, though Democrats regained their traditional advantages on Medicare and education not long after the drug benefit and No Child Left Behind. He advocates a carbon tax that not even Democrats will openly advocate (hence their cap-and-trade boondoggle). Frum’s books make clear that he has resigned himself to an ever-growing government, which renders him particularly ill-suited to influence those who would at least like to resist it.
Similarly, Christine Todd Whitman can pen an NYT op-ed preaching fiscal restraint and less government interference in our everyday lives — but where has she been on these issues in this century? It’s a piece that could just as easily have been written by Rudy Giuliani, or any of the rest of the usual suspects. The case of Kal-fohr-nya Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also comes to mind.
At root, the real problem the Snowes, Frums and Whitmans of the world have is that social cons actually advocate and vote their principles on social issues. If the GOP is in danger of being seen as ideologically narrow and too identified with social issues, it is in no small part because its supposedly “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” wing generally has been socially liberal and not fiscally conservative. Having abandoned the core principles on which Republicans are supposed to agree, they would like the social cons to dump the remainder of their principles as well.
It is one thing to be a moderate or a centrist or a reformer. It is another thing to be a Republican In Name Only. Such people have no standing to dictate where everyone else sits on the party bus, let alone drive it.