The Gingrich Legacy

Blunt political opportunism, not fancy libertarian ideas, is most of what's left of the '94 revolution


If there are still believers in limited government cowering in the corner of the Bush-Frist-DeLay Republican tent, they might recover some of their lost sense of shame by picking up a copy of the Cato Institute's new book, The Republican Revolution 10 Years Later: Smaller Government or Business as Usual?

It's a bracingly grim collection of essays from people who were generally enthusiastic about (and in some cases, participated in) the GOP's historic recapture of the House of Representatives in 1994. Take Stephen Moore, who worked with House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio) in drafting the Contract with America budget for fiscal year 1996.

"Under President Bush (and a Republican Congress) federal outlays increased 28 percent between FY01 and FY05," Moore writes. "Nondefense discretionary spending increased 34 percent during these four years. That fiscal policy is exactly the opposite of what was promised by Republican leaders when they first came to power in the 1990s," Moore writes. "The tragedy is that many of the Republicans who led the revolution have settled into power, become too comfortable with their perks and authority, and are now mirror images of what they replaced. The Republicans are now spending money faster than the Democrats ever did and have forgotten why voters put them in power in the first place."

You don't have to cherry-pick to find quotes like that.

  • Cato President Ed Crane: "There are too many opponents of liberty within the Republican Party… Many in the Republican Party have focused exclusively on tax cuts and growing the economy without dealing with the tougher job of limiting government to its proper size….That strategy has sadly oriented the party away from a focus on individual freedom and restoration of constitutional government."
  • The Competitive Enterprise Institute's Clyde Wayne Crews, Jr.: "Most people assumed that Republican politicians replacing Democrats on Capitol Hill in 1995 would lead to small-government, anti-regulation policies. That assumption turned out to be wrong."
  • Cato representative-government guy John Samples: "The Republicans in power have used partisan gerrymandering to prolong their control of Congress, a practice they denounced when the Democrats held power."
  • Cato telecom chief Adam Thierer: "Many Republican policymakers rallied around the cry to get the government's 'hands off the Internet!' If we judge the GOP by those promises, then the last 10 years of Republican rule are generally a failure."
  • Cato education analyst David Salisbury: "Recent federal education spending increases have been massive. Gone is the idea that there is no constitutional role for the federal government in the nation's schools. Instead, the Department of Education has been adopted as the Republicans' favored stepchild. The last 10 years have been a great disappointment to people who felt that the 1994 elections signaled an effort to cut the federal government and remove from it areas such as education where it had no legitimate constitutional role."
  • Cato criminal justice specialist Timothy Lynch: "With respect to criminal justice policies, the Republicans not only squandered their mandate but now also preside over a burgeoning federal law enforcement bureaucracy….Instead of a revolution, the GOP has turned its back on the Tenth Amendment and embraced a big-government agenda."

And so on. Few of the big-picture laments will come as a surprise to readers of Reason, but the detail in which these and other authors document the across-the-board betrayal of limited-government principles makes it a must-read even for those whose libertarian cherries were popped long before Terry Schiavo, "intelligent design," and the stem-cell ban.

But the volume is also illuminating—and relevant to today's major-party politics—because it kicks off with mostly upbeat accounts from none other than Newt Gingrich and Contract co-author Dick Armey. Unsurprisingly, the two politicians reminisce about the Revolution as a means for winning elections; on that front who could argue with its success?

"People who dismiss our victory as a fluke do not study our base very often," Gingrich writes. "We had nine million additional votes in 1994, the largest one-party increase in American history. There is a huge pool of uncommitted voters who have no interest in politics. Thus, when campaigns are able to mobilize such groups, they win in a big way."

This passage is crucial, and points to arguably the real legacy of Gingrich's Revolution, one that is eagerly being studied and debated by Democratic Party loyalists as we speak. The Republicans located and attracted a new base of voters with bomb-throwing rhetoric that only happened to include some limited-government ideas (hardly surprising, considering the party had been out of government for so long).

The key to maintaining that base, besides the usual vote-buying that every governing party engages in, has been to keep the bombs coming, not to follow up on any of the limited-government promises (with the notable exception of welfare reform).

If you don't believe me, spend a day consuming the most popular cultural artifacts from the Republican-affiliated alt-media—say, the Rush Limbaugh show, FreeRepublic.com, and Fox News—and compare the number of libertarian arguments or ideas you encounter with the number of diatribes against Hollywood, Hillary Clinton, or liberals. If the ratio is even 1:50, I'm buying the drinks.

This, finally, might just be the fruit of '94—a base mobilized not to reduce the scope of government, but to jeer at domestic enemies, conflate opposition to war with treason, and vote decisively against Michael Moore.

That self-described libertarians spend more time on these pursuits than noticing how their ideals continue to be mocked by the party they vote for is a testament to the alluring power of party-based populism. That Democratic activists seem eager to emulate key parts of this approach is a reason to curb your enthusiasm about the day when the Gingrich legacy gets the whipping it so richly deserves.