What accounts for the particular rottenness of the Republican party? The GOP is in the opposition catbird seat; the economy is in a coma; President Obama's popularity is in free-fall, and the smaller-government message is the only one that is resonating with voters. Yet GOP hegemony from 2001-2007 resulted in massive government growth and the largest increase in regulation in three decades. When put to the iron test of governance, the Republicans keep going easy on Obama's criminally incompetent economic team. Overnight sensation Sen. Scott Brown (R-Massachusetts) voted for the new jobs bill. How can this be?
Reason contributor Jonathan Rauch has a suggestion: "Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won." The party, Rauch argues in the National Journal, has become captive to the spirit of Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor and two-time presidential candidate.
That claim is more nuanced and less incendiary than it sounds—and it has little or nothing to do with race. Wallace, as Rauch explains, is remembered only for his racist demagoguery, but his politics were in fact a grab bag of populist chestnuts searching (not very hard) for coherence. The gist for libertarians:
Wallace was not a libertarian. In Alabama, he expanded the state government and built the junior college system. He never presented a program to shrink the government in Washington. That never stopped him from attacking Big Government, at least on the federal level. He called for "freedom from unwarranted, unwise, and unwanted intrusion and oppression by the federal government" and said, "I think that what they ought to do is cut down on federal spending." But he never put his money where his mouth was.
The cash value of Republican libertarianism has been similarly low. Ronald Reagan didn't reduce federal spending or try very hard; George W. Bush was a big spender; beginning in 1999, before Bush came to office, the Republican Congress sought to spend its way to a permanent majority. Today's "tea partiers" and Palin fans are angry about that, but try asking them for their plan to change it.
In February, Palin criticized Obama's proposed freeze on most domestic discretionary spending (about a sixth of the budget) as "certainly not enough," which it certainly isn't. "We need to go further," she told the Tea Party Nation convocation this month: "Cut spending, don't just simply slow down a spending spree." And she offered… what? To just simply slow down a spending spree: "Kill the plans for the second stimulus." This, she allowed cheerfully, is also "not going to be enough," but she said that her proposed non-increase, unlike Obama's proposed non-increase, would be "a good way to start and to show that we're serious about getting our financial house in order."
Actually, it shows that, like Wallace and his supporters 40 years ago, today's conservative populists are long on anger and short on coherence. For Wallace, small-government rhetoric was a trope, not a workable agenda. The same is true of his Republican heirs today, who insist that spending cuts alone, without tax increases, will restore fiscal balance but who have not proposed anywhere near enough spending cuts, primarily because they can't.
Someone who at least tried is Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, who recently unveiled a new edition of what he calls a "Road Map for America's Future." Its willingness to reform entitlement programs is laudable. But it keeps taxes at 19 percent of gross domestic product while raising (repeat: raising) federal spending from 21.6 percent of GDP in 2012 to more than 24 percent in the 2030s. It balances the budget, all right—in 2063.
The party that gets my vote will be the party that channels comedian George Wallace, the hardest working man in Vegas.