The Importance of the Limited Government Brand

Published June 2, 2013

Conor Friedersdorf responds to my points regarding the importance of limited government as the core to  conservative reform. “But George W. Bush, the last Republican to win the  presidency since 1988, and the last one to be reelected since 1984, was not a  limited-government type on spending, civil liberties, or foreign policy. Nor  were the winning Congresses of those years limited-government Congresses. They  backed away from limited government under pressure, and won for a long time  doing it. Where, then, does Domenech get the idea that the key to electoral  success for Republicans is to “deliver on their limited government  promises”?”

Simple: I don’t believe that the 2004 election, the only one where W. won the  popular vote was a replicable event. It was a national security election more  than anything else, and one could actually argue that Kerry overperformed given that. In the nine years since that election, the Republican brand has gone  through a period of enormous upheaval, and has destroyed its standing as a part  of competence and fiscal restraint. What led to the Republican Party getting  destroyed in 2006 and 2008? I would argue it was: 1) too much government  intervention overseas, 2) too much spending, 3) too much governmental  incompetency, 4) too much governmental corruption, 5) All four, or some  combination of them, or 6) none of the above. All four points go to the  importance of limited government; you have to argue 6 in order to avoid an argument which rejects that view.

As Sean Trende has noted on numerous occasions, the Republican Party wins  when it has an inherently populist message, as was clearly the case in 1994 and 2010. I’d argue Bush wrapping himself in the flag in 2004 amounted to this and  was far more important than the vestiges of compassionate conservatism to his  victory. But the inherent problem for the Republican Party over the past two  decades has been the gap between those populist promises on the stump and their  performance in office. Their promises on American security and traditional  values have been largely met or at least defended; but on the third leg of the stool, the normal route is: 1) Promise to limit government, 2) Get elected, 3)  Ignore promises and grow government, 4) Get thrown out of office, 5) What did you learn?

I view an important goal of conservative reform, for both electoral reasons  and policy ones, as breaking that destructive cycle. The Republican coalition  has survived and adapted as it faced one massive revolt over limited government  issues. But parties can and do die, historically – and I am unsure the GOP can  survive another Tea Party. Friedersdorf doesn’t think so: “If the GOP nominee in 2016 is a statist whose commitment to limited government is dubious and goes no  farther than rhetoric, I expect Republican voters will support him or her  overwhelmingly.” Of course this will likely happen, given that we just saw President Romney overwhelmingly supported by those white voters in Ohio in 2012.  Perhaps he can help us with that.

[First published at Real Clear Politics]