Higher Goals

Republicans learn to stop worrying and love Leviathan

When Harper's editor Lewis Lapham described his thoughts as he listened to the speeches at the Republican National Convention, the problem was not just that the convention had not occurred yet. It was also that the Republican Party he imagined does not exist.

Writing in the September issue of Harper's, which subscribers received in early August, Lapham said "the speeches in Madison Square Garden affirmed the great truths now routinely preached from the pulpits of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal—government the problem, not the solution; the social contract a dead letter; the free market the answer to every maiden's prayer." Even as a caricature, that list bears little resemblance to the main themes of the actual convention, where calls for cutting government and praise of the free market were conspicuous mainly by their absence.

If it weren't clear from their performance in Congress and in the White House, it would be clear from their platform that the Republicans have given up on reducing government even as an aspiration. The best they can do is assert that "our leaders must make sure that the growth of the federal government remains in check."

Notice how, even in a document full of wishes that will never come true, the Republicans have resigned themselves to the inevitable growth of Leviathan. Notice, too, that they seem to think the government's expansion is already "in check"; despite a 25-percent increase in federal spending since 2001, all they need to do is stay the course.

If Lapham had paid attention to George W. Bush's words and his performance in office, instead of being blinded by a New York liberal's idea of what Republicans are like, he would have realized how implausible it is to paint the president as Barry Goldwater's ideological heir. Back in 1999, during his first presidential campaign, Bush decried a "destructive mind-set: the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved—an approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than 'Leave us alone.'"

This is a straw man worthy of Lewis Lapham. Advocates of smaller government do not say "all our problems would be solved" simply by shrinking the size of the state; rather, they insist that not every problem has a political solution. Likewise, they look outside the political realm for their higher goals and nobler purposes.

Since Bush showed that, like his father, he has little understanding of or sympathy for that position, it's no surprise that "compassionate conservatism" turned out to be code for big-government conservatism. Although he delivered the tax cuts he promised, by failing to cut spending he is passing the bill to future taxpayers. Yet far from being embarrassed about the spending binge over which he has presided, Bush is proud of it.

"President Bush and Congressional Republicans have provided the largest increase in federal education funding in history," brags the GOP platform, which borrows the Clintonian trick of calling spending "investing." It praises Bush for increasing farm subsidies and for "strengthening Medicare" by hastening its insolvency through a drug benefit that is projected to cost more than half a trillion dollars during its first decade and as much as $2 trillion the decade after that.

As the platform reminds us, this boondoggle was part of legislation that also gave us health savings accounts, a step toward changing the incentives that help drive escalating medical costs. This combination of reckless government expansion with modest market-oriented reform makes me worry what the cost of "strengthening Social Security" will be.

Along with education and health care, the platform advocates a federal role in job training, "combating chronic homelessness," "promoting drug-free communities," encouraging local volunteer work, "removing barriers for Americans with disabilities," "promoting healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood," "supporting adoption and foster children," and "promoting healthy choices." It supports subsidies for home ownership, rural Internet service, railroads, energy research, commercial research and development, and "faith-based" social services, among other things.

The platform committee tries to cheer up advocates of smaller government who are depressed by this litany with the following joke: "We believe that the federal government should be limited and restricted to the functions mandated by the United States Constitution. The taxation system should not be used to redistribute wealth or fund ever-increasing entitlements and social programs."

That's funnier than all of Jenna and Barbara's one-liners put together.

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