By Burt Solomon
October 18, 1999
This wasn't the Gary Bauer of political lore. Maybe it was because he was speaking to a roomful of secular, skeptical journalists at the National Press Club in Washington, as well as a nationwide television audience via C-SPAN.
The Republican presidential candidate, the favorite son of many religious conservatives, invoked the name of God just twice-and of "Reagan" four times. This was a worldly, witty Bauer, a self-styled populist who railed against "Wall Street's stock speculators" and "Washington's well-heeled lobbyists," and who dared to denigrate corporations as just another special interest.
The point of his appearance was to propose a 16 percent flat tax, financed by eliminating the existing tax deductions for the depreciation of industrial plants and machinery. But it wasn't, in Bauer's parlance, simply a flat tax. No, it was "a family-friendly flat tax," one "that puts our people first"-a tax, that is, with a purpose, of helping some people at others' expense. Bauer "is a conservative social engineer," grouses Edward H. Crane, the founder and president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "He has no principled objection to federal action to get people to do things that he thinks should be done."
Bauer claims the ideological mantle of Ronald Reagan, whom he served as the top White House domestic policy adviser in 1987-88. But, in a fundamental way, he doesn't deserve it. Reagan regarded government as a necessary evil, something to be removed from Americans' collective backs. He believed in undoing the New Deal apparatus of governmental subsidies and regulation, to restore America to the small-town, halcyon past found in his most evocative movies.
That's not Bauer. In all sorts of ways, he wants to wield the power of the federal government to make the world a better place. And he isn't alone in this. Nearly all of his rivals for the presidency in next year's election feel the same. As the candidates argue over education or Social Security or helping the poor, "everyone in that debate acknowledges a role for government in forcing some redistribution of resources," says Jeffrey A. Eisenach, once an ideas man for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and now the president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank. "The debate is over method."
It's no surprise to see Democrats who aspire to the White House natter on about ambitious new federal programs, such as the recent proposals to assure that every child has health insurance (Bill Bradley) and a year of pre-kindergarten education (Al Gore). A certain faith in government also comes naturally to the Reform Party, which aims to change Washington's political culture so that the federal government works more in the voters' true interests than it has of late.
Seeing the GOP's would-be Presidents gush about using government to solve society's ills, however, is more of a shock. The GOP's Governors, who are constantly under pressure to deliver quotidian services to querulous voters, have been talking like that for a while.
But now this tendency toward-shall we whisper the word?-activism has spread to the national party as well. Except possibly for Steve Forbes, the Republican presidential hopefuls allude to Washington as not only part of the problem, but as part of the solution. They don't favor an expansive government, and frequently give lip service to just the opposite, but they want a government that's strong and effective, capable of playing a vital-and salutary-role in people's lives.
They're looking for "a governing conservatism," Eisenach says, one that's suited to a post-New Deal era, that "has a role in creating institutions that structure the market." Candidates might propose delivering services by means of market-based mechanisms, such as vouchers or privatized accounts, but they would still anoint winners and losers by funneling the taxpayers' beneficences through Washington.
Compared with 1980, when Reagan was elected President, or with 1994, when the GOP seized control of Congress, the course of the 2000 presidential campaign shows a clear moderation in the Republican Party, says James P. Pinkerton, who was a domestic policy adviser to Reagan and then to President Bush. On an ideological spectrum, "where Ed Crane is a 1 and Pol Pot is a 10," Pinkerton puts Reagan and the House's Class of '94 at three or three and one-half, and the current crop of Republican candidates at four and one-half.
This is no small shift, given that the Democrats start at about five and one-half. The Conservatism of Yore
He was rarely subtle, and he didn't intend to be. When he spoke on nationwide television in 1964 on behalf of doomed Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, actor Ronald Reagan declared that "a government can't control the economy without controlling people." In accepting the GOP presidential nomination in 1980, he warned that "government is never more dangerous than when our desire to have it help us blinds us to its great power to harm us." In his first inaugural address, he was blunt: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
In the White House, Reagan was probably as willing to compromise as most Presidents are. But other than his flamboyant act of firing the nation's air traffic controllers rather than letting them go out on strike, it is hard to think of occasions when Reagan exploited the domestic powers of the federal government in a heavy-handed way. To the contrary, he tried to scale back. First, he persuaded Congress to cut and flatten federal income taxes; later he championed a tax reform plan (partly inspired, ironically, by Bradley) that stripped away most of the preferences for one thing or another that Washington (and its lobbyists) had engraved in the nation's tax code over the decades. Quite consistently, though with varying degrees of success, Reagan tried to end programs, cut budgets, deregulate commerce, abolish Cabinet departments, and bequeath federal functions to the states.
Reagan saw the federal government as "a great blundering dinosaur, which got in the way of people," recounts Stuart Butler, the vice president for domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, which was influential in helping chart the Reagan Administration's course. Shrinking the government was a good thing on its own, in Reagan's view, for it would unleash the nation's entrepreneurial spirit.
This anti-government zeitgeist survived President Bush's kinder, gentler tenure-which included enactment (and his signing) of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a strengthened Clean Air Act. It resurfaced in 1994, with the election of ardent Republican conservatives of a traditional bent, who were devoted to chopping federal spending, eliminating agencies, and balancing the budget.
Unfortunately for these cocky Republicans, they overreached. They tried to curb federal subsidies for school lunches and, in the course of a budget dispute with Clinton, succeeded in shutting down the government-actions the public disliked.
The Republicans misinterpreted the 1994 election as a victory for conservative ideology, contends David Winston, senior vice president at Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates, a Republican polling firm in Alexandria, Va., whereas it was really a protest by the voters against ideology-specifically, against the liberalism embodied in Clinton's failed, labyrinthine proposal to overhaul the nation's health care system. "They didn't elect those folks to be ideological," Winston says. "They elected them to get things done. . . . People want to see results."
In another way as well, the GOP's smashing successes may have served only to assure a turnaround, or least a lull, in the party's historic hostility to government. For the jolt prompted Clinton, a political chameleon, whose secret of political survival has been his belief in almost everything, to bid an artful surrender. Adopting the political balancing act that became known as triangulation, Clinton threw in with congressional Republicans to balance the budget, revamp the nation's reviled welfare system, and in other ways narrow the distinctions between the competing parties.
The result is that Clinton has done for Reagan what President Dwight D. Eisenhower did for Franklin D. Roosevelt. As the first Republican in the White House since Herbert Hoover, Eisenhower effectively ratified the New Deal, with its momentous expansion in federal authority, by not trying to reverse it. Likewise, Clinton has pretty much accepted-on the Democratic Party's behalf-Reagan's vision of a smaller government by merely tinkering with it instead of trying to undo it.
In other words, the era of big-or, at least, bigger-government is over, as Clinton has said. That debate's over, and Reagan won. "The notion of a grandiloquent government has been pretty much eliminated," Pinkerton notes.
This leaves a vastly different issue on the table: now what? That's a question that sets off backs and forths about the sorts of things that government should do. On nearly every political stump, there has been a lot of talk about redefining a role for government-one that's restrained but unashamed-that is capable of accomplishing what the public wants.
A Generosity Toward Government
What the public wants, and how it wants to get it, are often closely related questions, with answers that won't stand still. "People inherently don't trust the government," nor are they inclined to see it grow, Edward T. Schafer of North Dakota, the incoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said in an interview. But at the same time, he noted, "people are compassionate," and they'll support the government if they think their money is well-spent. And possibly never more so than now. With the budget now balanced, the government more efficient, and the economy still going strong, Schafer surmised, "they're not looking for a bogeyman or evil out there."
In this age of poll-driven politics, it is no surprise that politicians' embrace of an activist role for government has seemed to sit well, by and large, with the electorate. Some dramatic evidence arrived last month in a CBS News poll, which found that Americans only narrowly prefer a smaller government that offers fewer services to a bigger government that does more (by 46 percent to 43 percent, which is within the survey's margin of error). Just three years ago, respondents were decisive (61 percent to 30 percent) in declaring that smaller was better.
Other polls have found comparable, if less stunning, shifts in public sentiment. For instance, surveys conducted by Penn Schoen & Berland Associates for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council found that the proportion of people who agreed that the best government is one that governs least dropped by five percentage points, to 56 percent, from 1996-98. The public has little affection for government in the abstract, though it likes the individual programs that Big Brother provides, and voters seem to be offering less resistance than before to having Washington lend a hand.
Why the shift in public mood? In a word: prosperity. It was hard times, after all, that provoked the widespread tax revolts of the 1970s and 1980s among citizens who resented paying for the government benefits they saw others receiving. Now that incomes are rising, inflation is low, and the economy shows no signs of slowing down, people who are faring well "can be more generous," says Karlyn Keene Bowman, an expert on public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Which suggests that if and when the economy sours, so will the political magnanimity.
Robert M. Teeter, however, isn't so sure. "These things don't change every two years or four years," the Republican pollster says, but in grander historical cycles of 10 or 20 years. The failure of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society to cure poverty in the 1960s helped lead to the demise of a faith in big government to solve all problems that the New Deal had inspired three decades before. But minimalism didn't work, either. Now, Teeter says, the public wants to see the government start working more effectively and less bureaucratically, as businesses and most other institutions have done in recent years.
"What is the proper role of the national government is a 200-year-old debate," Teeter says-and it's taking yet another turn.
Even conservatives who are aghast at any additional comfort with government acknowledge a change in the public mood. "People want government to be active but also to be smart," says Heritage's Butler, "as opposed to the small-government approach" of Reagan's time. The consequence, he adds, is an approach to governing that envisions federal intervention to "help particular people in particular circumstances"-to pay for college, say, or afford health insurance. In Republican circles, he adds, this has caused "a pretty major shift, at least in the way the [policy] discussion takes place."
Almost Like Democrats
In the huge ballroom of the Washington Hilton, the hotel where Reagan was shot, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas was doing his damnedest the other day to be all things to all Republicans. The GOP's presidential front-runner sketched his views on the proper role of government for members of the Christian Coalition, including the ones clad in Bauer T-shirts. He boasted of the bill he had signed in Texas requiring parents to be told before their teen-age daughters undergo abortions, and he described his vaguely ambitious plans to achieve "prosperity with a purpose."
"Government should do a few things," Bush declared, "and do them well."
Well, let us count those items of activism, as per his suggestions. Before the throng of religious conservatives, Bush lauded "some of the highest and compassionate goals of government," such as helping the poor, the disabled, the elderly, and the dying. In his State of the State address to Texas legislators last January, he asked them to cut the sales tax on diapers, over-the-counter medicines, and Internet connections; to institute a tax credit for research and development; to reduce emissions from old factories; to restore worn courthouses; and to come up with additional dollars to help schoolchildren to read, employ more teachers, build new schools, hire 380 new caseworkers for the state's child protection agency, provide "transition benefits" for people moving from welfare to work, augment child care subsidies for the poor, and open "second chance" homes for unwed teen-age mothers. "A rising tide lifts many boats-but not all," Bush asserted in an Indianapolis speech in July, as he proposed "a different role for government . . . a responsibility to help people," and denounced a "destructive mind-set: the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. . . . The American government is not the enemy of the American people."
Last week, he took to blasting the Republicans in Congress for an insufficient enthusiasm for addressing social problems. What Bush has proposed on education, for instance, "sounds a lot like [the] DLC," former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich observed recently on CNBC. Reich, a liberal, isn't alone in harboring such thoughts. His political opposite, Cato's Crane, described Bush as "the original social engineer. . . . I've never heard `W' say, `Eliminate a program, or cut one."' In an op-ed piece, Crane portrayed Bush as downright "Clintonesque," in that the two middle-of-the-roaders share a "casual . . . assumption that virtually any problem confronting the American people is an excuse for action by the federal government."
Indeed, in Crane's view, just about all of the Republican presidential candidates ought to be classified as New Democrats. Consider, for example, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a man obsessed with government. The health of the federal government is at the core of his political concerns-how to fix it, restore its dignity, free it from money's grasp, so that once again it can work as it should. "On my honor, I swear to you that from my first day in office to the last breath I draw, I will do everything in my power to make you proud of your government," he proclaimed in formally announcing his candidacy last month. "Once we win our government back, there is no limit to what we can accomplish."
McCain went so far last spring as to urge graduates of Johns Hopkins University to "consider very seriously entering government." How un-Reaganlike! "We Republicans have to acknowledge that there is a role for the federal government," McCain told the commencement crowd.
Two others running for the presidency, Elizabeth H. Dole and Pat Buchanan, are prone to calling for smaller government, but they happened to have spent many years at the federal trough. Dole served two stints in the Cabinet and two in the White House, not to mention her 24-year marriage to a Senator's Senator. Buchanan, a native of Washington, D.C., who worked for three Presidents, offers a political agenda that centers on having the federal government keep imports and immigrants out. Similarly, fourth-term Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah has become known less for his native conservatism than for his disconcertingly pragmatic alliances with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "In general, Sen. Hatch is not opposed to using government to do good things for people," a campaign spokesman said.
And then there's Bauer. He would brandish the power of government to make the citizenry morally straighter, by outlawing abortion, prosecuting pornographers, and opposing "special rights on the basis of sexual preference." That's besides fiddling with the tax code for social ends. "It is quite possible to use tax policy in ways not terribly easy to distinguish from spending," says Bruce Bartlett, who worked for Bauer in Reagan's White House and is now a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a libertarian think tank. He finds Bauer's tax plan "ludicrous," because it sticks it to employers while supposedly putting "families first, last, and everything."
Bauer comes by his activism honestly. As a boy, he had a confrontation with his often-drunken father (much like Clinton had with his stepfather), and he joined in a campaign by ministers and owners of businesses to clean up his gambling-ridden, mob-controlled hometown of Newport, Ky. "In this country, you can do a whole lot of things, but where I grew up, the things people were being allowed to do resulted in their own personal lives being a mess," Bauer said in a profile in The Des Moines (Iowa) Register last month. The newspaper reported that "it was Newport where Bauer discovered that government mattered."
"He's a religious populist," says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster who had Bauer as a client last year. "The size of government is not an issue to populists."
Just one of the surviving Republican candidates can make a straight-faced claim of being hostile-or indifferent-to the federal government: Forbes. The magazine-publisher-turned-awkward-politician is the only one who has never spent any appreciable time in Washington and who, to Bartlett and others, comes the closest to Reagan in disdaining government as an instrument of good. Even so, Bartlett adds, "I'm not sure how minimalist even Forbes is. . . . Chart his position on abortion." After losing as a purist economic conservative in 1996, Forbes has curried favor from religious conservatives by bringing social issues-notably, opposition to abortion-to the forefront.
In this regard, of course, Forbes might be counted as nothing more than the most familiar of American archetypes: a pragmatist. Since the earliest days of the frontier, Americans have believed in being practical most of all. Pragmatism is considered the only native political philosophy, and it has captured not only Forbes, but also his rivals and the voters as well. Americans, after all, tend to want what they want, and they don't care all that much about how they get it.
By Burt Solomon
October 18, 1999