The era of big government is over, and since Bill Clinton announced its demise, we've witnessed the birth of what Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) has called "the era of REALLY big government," midwifed by a Republican administration. Libertarians' and small-government conservatives' disenchantment with Bush White House 2.0, as well as their restrained enthusiasm for the new version currently in beta, have been widely discussed in conservative magazines, think tank hallways, newspaper op-eds, and the blogosphere. But in the Republican Party itself, where the medium is message discipline, this internal malaise has been, as Cox told an audience of party faithful almost a year ago, "the elephant in the conservative living room no one wants to talk about." That may be about to change.
At a Club for Growth event during the Republican National Convention in New York City this summer, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) delivered a small government red-meat talk warning that the GOP was "veering off…into the dangerous waters of big government Republicanism" and urged that "as soon as we reelect George W. Bush, this debate" between a progressive conservatism that reconciles itself to an expansive state and the more familiar variety that views government more often as problem than solution, "will begin."
They've succeeded at reelecting Bush; now what of that long overdue debate? Pence, a strident supporter of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, is scarcely a libertarian poster child, but it is at least somewhat telling to note that in September he was unanimously elected chair of the Republican Study Committee, a group comprising more than 85 conservative members of the House of Representatives. Under heavy leadership pressure, a majority of RSC members supported the costly Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Yet at that Club for Growth event, the RSC's new chair blasted that very bill, which the White House routinely touts as a major achievement, as "a massive, one-size-fits-all entitlement" and "the largest entitlement expansion since 1965." He has equally harsh words for No Child Left Behind, "the largest expansion of the Department of Education since Jimmy Carter created it." Comparing a Republican president to Jimmy Carter? Them's fighting words!
It's not clear how many RSC members share Pence's unease with the tax-your-kids-and-spend trend in the GOP, but one who's unambiguously distressed by the drift from small government ideals is Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Flake believes it's time for small government Republicans "to act like a minority party again, using minority party tactics."
Flake says he'd relish some help from the president, who he hopes will locate his veto pen in the coming term. If he doesn't, RSCers will need to be willing to confront party leadership by "bringing down a rule or two," working with Democrats when necessary. Flake cites his cooperation with Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) in halting a buyout of tobacco farmers that would have cost taxpayers almost $10 billion. In the short term, Flake hopes a porkalicious transportation bill currently in the works can be brought under control. But he'd also like to see broader procedural reforms that might limit "tricks pulled by appropriations in the way they order the bills, frontloading some, backloading others."
How successful Flake, Pence, and their fellow travelers can be will depend in large part on the willingness of their fellow small-government Republicans to stick their necks out under an administration not renowned for its tendency to brook dissent gladly. Four more years may yet prove to be, well, four more years. But there appears to be at least a comforting glimmer of a possibility that congressional leaders who don't much mind big government when it's their big government will discover, to their chagrin, that there remains a republican wing of the Republican Party.