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The Conservative Curmudgeon
June 2, 2009

Republicans Still Don’t Understand Their Decline
by Allan C. Brownfeld

ALEXANDRIA, VA — There is much agonizing about the demise of the Republican Party and what path it might take to restore its viability. Some argue that it has become too narrowly conservative and what is needed is a “big-tent” approach, welcoming those who may disagree with some of the tenets of the party’s base. Others call for a “pure” conservative party, dedicated to the traditional philosophy of limited government, lower taxes, a strong national defense — as well as a variety of social issues.

Any debate between the advocates of these differing approaches is, in the end, meaningless. In our personal lives, when a medical problem arises, the key to dealing with it successfully is a correct diagnosis. The same is true of problems in our public life. If the reasons for the decline of the Republican Party are not properly diagnosed, the real challenges will not be successfully confronted.

The Republican Party lost the White House and both the House and the Senate because the public repudiated the record of the Bush administration’s eight years. During those eight years, Republicans did not promote limited government and fiscal responsibility. Instead, deficits grew, government got bigger, and the executive branch expanded its power.

Beyond this, an administration that came to office promising not to pursue a foreign policy of “nation building” and global adventurism invaded Iraq, a country that never attacked us, had no role in the September 11 terrorist attack, and had no weapons of mass destruction. When it comes to competence, the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina held it open to widespread critics — shared by observers of all political philosophies.

Some Republicans — but far too few — have attempted to understand the reason for the public's repudiation of their party. Linda Chavez, Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a former member of the Reagan administration, declares that, “The Republican brand has traditionally been identified with competence and fiscal responsibility. But the mishandling of the war in Iraq, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, and the failure to recognize and avert the housing and credit crisis have undermined that association. Neither President Bush nor the Republican-controlled Congress behaved as fiscal conservatives, weakening the argument that Republicans can be trusted to manage the people's money better than Democrats.”

Former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-FL), now a radio and television host and author of the book The Last Best Hope, writes: “Let’s face it, American conservatism is now associated with wasteful spending, military adventurism, and ideological conformity. The GOP took a $l55 billion surplus and turned it into a $l.5 trillion debt. George W. Bush and the Republican Congress also allowed federal spending to grow at its fastest clip since the Great Society, while adding a $7 trillion burden to a Medicare program already headed toward bankruptcy.”

On the international stage, notes Scarborough, “Bush dismissed Colin Powell’s disciplined approach to foreign policy in favor of one that guaranteed the ending of tyranny for all mankind. By Bush’s second term, the GOP’s foreign policy objectives were so utopian that even Woodrow Wilson would have been aghast.”

Under eight years of Republican leadership, the role of government was dramatically increased. A decade ago, U.S. government spending was 34.3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) compared with 48.2 percent in the euro zone — an approximately l4-point gap, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 20l0, U.S. spending is expected to be 39.9 percent of the GDP, compared with 47.l percent in the euro zone — a gap of less than 8 points. As entitlement spending rises over the next decade, experts predict, we will become much closer to the level of government spending in Western Europe.

In its widely discussed article, “We Are All Socialists Now,” Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas wrote in Newsweek that, “The architect of this new era of big government? History has a sense of humor, for the man who laid the foundations for the world Obama now rules is George W. Bush, who moved to bail out the financial sector last autumn with $700 billion.”

And it was under President Bush that Republicans abandoned their traditional fear of an all-powerful executive. The Cato Institute’s Gene Healy points out that, “Over the last eight years, President Bush repeatedly insisted that he was the sole constitutional ‘decider,’ free from congressional or judicial checks on his power. He claimed the power to imprison American citizens as terrorist suspects for as long as he deemed necessary, tap Americans’ phones without a warrant and, through the use of state secrets privilege — a doctrine that shields information related to national security — prevent the courts from testing the legality of those propositions. In the last months of his administration, Bush behaved like a Roman dictator for economic affairs, deciding which companies would live or die with the $700 billion in taxpayer funds Congress had authorized the executive branch to commit.”

The powers now being embraced by President Obama — and his expanded financial bailout programs — are only possible because he inherited from Republicans an increasingly powerful executive power. “For a generation, the conservative movement has fought to expand presidential power,” declares Gene Healy. “Thanks in large part to their efforts, Obama has inherited the most powerful presidency in American history. That ought to give conservatives pause.”

When voters rejected Republicans in November 2008, it was not genuine conservatism that was rejected — for the Bush administration had never pursued a real conservative agenda. When Republicans now charge the Obama administration with “socialism” because of its support for government bailouts of banks, auto companies, and other sectors of the economy, they conveniently forget that it was the Bush administration — and Republicans in Congress — that initiated the bailouts.

Much of what the Obama administration proposes concerning the economy is indeed subject to legitimate criticism. But Republicans do not enter the debate with clean hands. They cannot embrace bailouts and deficits when they are power and then claim they are against them -- on principle -- when the Democrats are in power. Yet this is precisely what they are now doing. Is it any wonder that their criticism is not taken seriously -- and that fewer Americans identify as Republicans than ever before?

How can a party that embraced the very policies it now opposes when it was in power convince Americans that it is now really in favor of balanced budgets, limited government, and something less than an all-powerful executive? This is the challenge Republicans face. It is far from an easy one.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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