I used to think the biggest problem with the Republicans was the Democrats. Especially after the ’94 elections it seemed to me that you had one party with basically sound ideas about how to address a lot of problems: the weight of taxation and regulation, the runaway entitlement spending, the horrible idea that the solution to Every Conceivable Problem was more money and more government.
And you had another party whose sole function was to make things worse: to propose more bad ideas, to scare voters by painting necessary reforms in apocalyptic hues, to use procedural tricks to slow those reforms.
We would be better off if the Democrats would simply go away, I thought. Without their bread and circuses routine, Republicans wouldn’t spend so much money on existing programs or start dozens of new ones. And my theoretical grandchildren wouldn’t be stuck with the bill. I continued to believe for a long time the Democrats were the problem.
When Republicans agreed to spend more money after the PR beating they took with the government shutdowns, I blamed President Bill Clinton for wielding his veto pen and demonizing his opponents.
When candidate George W. Bush proposed to pay for prescription drugs for old folks, I blamed Vice President Al Gore. After all, Gore had proposed the prescription drug benefit in the first place, for the richest group of retirees the world has ever known. If Bush wanted to have a chance at their votes, he needed to bid for them.
In those cases and in so many others, I thought it was the Democrats who had made the Republicans worse. They stood in the way of real change, and treated our democracy like an auction house. But then we got something close to what I had wanted: four years of undivided Republican rule, with large enough majorities in both House and Senate to put through any legislation the Party wanted to pass.
So what did the Republicans do? They expanded domestic discretionary spending more than LBJ. They larded normal spending bills with absurd pork projects. They teased us with the promise of Social Security reform but then said, “Eh, maybe some other time.”
And, in the end, the Republicans tried to scare us into voting for them with the threat of cut-and-running, free-spending Democrats taking back both houses.Now that dread day is upon us, but I no longer believe Democrats are the problem.
Oh, sure they’ll be plenty bad. Many of the House committees will be chaired by congressmen who hung on during the party’s 12-year exile. We can look forward to those paleo-liberal chairmen holding hearings and clamoring for more regulations and such. There will be a lot of shock and showmanship and even some legislation.
President Bush may yet find that veto stamp in his desk and start using it, which could at least limit the damage. As for the source of the problem, look at how some of the state initiatives fared in the elections.
The voters of Ohio faced three choices: A no-smoking ban, a moderate ban or a ban that pretty much stamped a scarlet “S” on smokers’ chests — and they opted to go all Nathaniel Hawthorne. Spending limitations failed everywhere they were on the ballot. Voters in a halfdozen states hiked their minimum wages, and now a federal hike could follow.
There are counterexamples but it’s true Americans are requiring that government at all levels do more and more things, and in the process reach more deeply into our lives. We rebuff most direct tax increases and clear threats to our well-being, but that’s about it. We certainly don’t require elected officials of either party to behave as if government has any limits.
Which is odd because public opinion polls consistently show that we think government does too much. That’s a great sentiment. Moreover, it’s an idea this great country was founded on. My only question is, Do we mean it?
Jeremy Lott is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of In Defense of Hypocrisy.