Politics

E.J. Dionne Discovers Strange Species That Apparently Doesn't Like Always-Expanding Government

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Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who six months ago was accusing anti-Obamacare protesters of practicing "the politics of the jackboot," is now trying gamely to understand these Nazis Tea Partyers. Along the way he gives good insight into a certain liberal mindset:

The ferocity of its opposition to President Obama is mystifying to political progressives. Most of the left simply doesn't see him as especially liberal, let alone "socialist."

Obama, after all, is the man who saved the banks and the capital markets. Now the bankers are secure and most of them are still rich.

Obama is not especially liberal through these glasses

His health-care proposals stopped far short of the single-payer system that so many liberals have long sought, and his plan is the kind of thing moderate Republicans offered back when they were a significant force. Obama put absolutely no political muscle behind the progressives' backup idea: a public option that could have served as a beachhead for a single-payer system.

The president is also decidedly moderate on budget questions. His stimulus plan was, if anything, too small. […]

Why has this middle-of-the-road leader inspired such enthusiastic counter-organizing and called forth such venom?

With the question posed like that, one of Dionne's answers will not surprise you: "yes, parts of this movement do seem to be motivated by a new nativism and by racism." But then he pivots, with a sense of audible wonder, to these creatures who seem to genuinely disagree with economic interventionism:

For the anti-statists, opposing government power is a matter of principle. […]

One might have detected anti-statism sentiment *before* Obama was elected

The purest expression of this disposition has come from Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican from Texas. In 2008, Paul strenuously criticized President Bush's proposed bank bailout for "propping up a failed system so the agony lasts longer." Without a bailout, Paul conceded, "It would be a bad year. But, this way, it's going to be a bad decade."

Understanding the principled anti-government radicalism that animates this movement explains why its partisans see the conservative Bush as a sellout and the cautiously liberal Obama as a socialist.

Almost there, Dionne! Well not really, but I want to be encouraging.

In my experience, "anti-statists" didn't think Bush was a "sellout"; they never thought he was one of them to begin with. The Republican Party turned publicly and decisively against the 1994 Revolution's libertarian strains long before the 2000 election. As John McCain wrote in his memoir of the 2000 campaign,

You can't spell "anathema" without "men"

I welcomed a greater, if still limited, role for government in national problems, anathema to the "leave us alone" libertarian philosophy that dominated Republican debates in the 1990s. So did George W. Bush, I must add, who challenged libertarian orthodoxy with his appeal for a "compassionate conservatism." He based much of his more activist government philosophy in an expanded role for the federal government in education policy and in his support for contributions that small, faith-based organizations could make to the solution of social problems. I gave more attention to national service and to a bigger role for government as a restraining force on selfish interests that undermined national unity. But his positions did him much credit, as well they should have, and they do him much credit now as he uses his presidency to advance them.

The results were not only anathema to what Dionne calls "anti-government radicalism," they were an affront to the far less ambitious (and far more widespread) notion that maybe the government should limit its annual growth to the rate of inflation plus population-expansion. Instead, as Nick Gillespie wrote in his devastating obit for 43's presidency,

Turns out, increases in government spending matter

If increases in government spending matter, then 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? 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).

We're not talking about (shudder) closing down the Department of Education here. We're talking about maybe not increasing its budget by 80 percent in just five years. That really is how far we've allowed the goalposts to be moved. (And don't even get me started about states doubling their budgets between 2002-2007, a brazen feat of misgovernance that taxpayers are assumed to expect as a reasonable baseline from which to start weeping about "cruel" budget cuts.) Just about every government in the United States, on every level, has been going on an absolute spending bender for the last decade. Pointing this out is no act or example of "radicalism," it's Civics and Journalism 101. Or at least it oughtta be.

And yeah, some of us were saying this stuff before George W. Bush was safely term-limited. In case you've blacked that era out, here's what the leading lights of the pro-Republican commentariat were saying about government spending in the run-up to 2004 election:

How'd that work out for ya, Ramesh!

New York Times columnist David Brooks this August proclaimed Bush's presidency to be the "death of small-government conservatism." Conservative National Review writer Ramesh Ponnuru last week went so far as to call limited-government advocates "dumb" for being disappointed in Bush's big-government record.

"The dumb case against Bush regards him as having betrayed the historic Republican commitment to keep spending down from year to year," Ponnuru wrote. "This history stretches all the way back to January 1995, and all the way forward until the fall of 1996. … Much of the country likes increased federal spending just fine."

So no, Bush was no "sellout"; he was a mainstream Republican. That was the problem.