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Republicans must embrace limited government again

By Scott Tibbs, November 12, 2008

In my response to the Herald-Times "instant message" question last week about what would be remembered most about the 2008 elections, I said "it will be remembered as a lesson to the Republican Party that we cannot win as the party that grows government just a little bit more slowly than the Democrats." It is true that government spending grew more quickly under President Bush than it did under President Clinton. It is important to point out, though, that Clinton was restrained by a Republican Congress for 6 of his 8 years as President, and the Democrats bitterly attacked the Republican Congress in 1995 and 1996 for slowing the rate of growth of many federal programs.

In order to clear up any confusion, I was not making a statement about who actually grew the government more. I have been hearing for years now when I criticize Republicans for growing government that "the Democrats would be worse." Bush may grow the government, but Al Gore (2000) or John Kerry (2004) will be worse. John McCain may grow the government, but Barack Obama will be worse, and so on.

Time after time after time, criticisms of big-government policies promoted by Republicans is answered with "the Democrats would be worse". That is the argument I was responding to in my "instant message" response. As a point of political strategy, Republicans cannot win over the long run if they govern as the party of big government. Claiming the Democrats would be grow government more only goes so far. Running on a limited government platform, Republicans captured the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 after it had been controlled by Democrats for 40 years.

I only get 50 words in an "instant message" response. That's all. I do not have nearly enough space to explore any issue deeply enough to address every single aspect of an issue and every bit of data. I have room for a quick statement, and nothing more. There are 279 words in the first three paragraphs of this blog post, far more than I am allowed in an "instant message" response and more even than a letter to the editor, which is a 200 word maximum. While I believe the "instant message" section is a valuable forum in the newspaper, it does not carry the same weight as the letters to the editor section and one cannot expect the same standards of argumentation, because space limitations are too strict for that.

As to the issue itself: For eight years now, soon to be ex-President Bush made the Republican Party the party of big government. President Bush have us a brand new federal entitlement program in the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a significant expansion of the federal government's role in local K-12 education through the "No Child Left Behind" law, and a "campaign finance reform" law that regulates the content of political speech. President Bush made no effort to control the growth of federal spending and pushed through anti-terrorism measures such as the "Patriot Act" and expanded wiretapping powers that have concerned conservatives who distrust the federal government.

In January, Barack Obama will take office as President and will likely advance several policies that will expand government. If for no other reason than partisanship, Republicans will oppose those initiatives and advocate for smaller, more limited government. The problem Republicans in Congress will face when opposing these policies, at least initially, is a credibility gap caused by the big government policies of the last eight years. Only though consistent advocacy of limited government can the Republican Party be seen as the party of limited government again. If the Republicans recapture Congress in 2010 (and I believe they will) they must govern as the party of limited government.

Republicans have the opportunity over the next four years to be the principled opposition to the higher taxes, increased spending and expanded regulation that will be proposed and passed by the Democrats. Republicans needed to lose this year, because GOP leaders in Washington had become focused on maintaining political power and forgot about the limited government principles that got them elected in the first place. Republicans lost the Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. If Republicans want to be successful as a party again, they need to rediscover their conservative/libertarian principles. The question now is whether Republicans will learn the lessons of 2006 and 2008.