With the House Republicans’ extension of the debt ceiling it could be that the Republican Party is finally moving back towards fiscal reality. But it’s hard not to be just a little melancholy about the state of the Party. The Fiscal Conservatives had won, and the ideologues in their own party threw it all away.
The Republican faction that talks of “starving the beast”, that actively wants to force our government into default, aren’t fiscal conservatives – there is nothing fiscally conservative about attempting to bankrupt our government as a way of shrinking it. They are more accurately described as Ideological Conservatives, Republicans that never accepted the compromise that our country reached in the 1930s to create our current role for government. They never accepted Social Security, or that government should redistribute some of the benefits of capitalism to insure that every American had an opportunity to participate in our economy.
The mainstream Republican Party did accept the compromise forged under President Roosevelt. Eisenhower didn’t try to overturn the New Deal and even expanded the federal government’s role. Nixon was a strong supporter of unions. The compromise was accepted for a range of reasons. It fit Republican’s ideas of compassion and moral obligation. Republicans have favored a constrained government but still saw a need for a strong national government as a key to a strong national economy.
And most of all Republicans accepted the compromise because it worked. Because making sure the elderly didn’t starve and that workers could secure increasing wages helped build a vibrant consumer economy. Because using the federal government to extend equality of opportunity made our nation stronger.
Certainly Republicans were concerned about the growth of government, recognizing that if voters got in the habit of looking to government to solve their problems its size and responsibility would tend to keep growing. Fiscal Conservative’s answer was to push for a balanced budget. Deficit spending – decoupling government spending from taxes – almost guarantees that the amount of money government spends will grow. People just tend to spend more if they can put it on a credit card.
A balanced budget, forcing voters to pay for government as they used it, protected against the growth of government. If voters actually had to pay for the services being provided they would be much more cautious about extending government.
A balanced budget was a core belief of the Party’s fiscal conservatism for decades, part of a larger message of economic prudence and competence. Republicans didn’t question the need for a strong government but instead told voters that they were the party to make government more efficient, to make sure we got the most for our tax dollars. The Republican Party’s campaign message was that it could run government better.
After decades of pushing, through many twists and turns, the fiscal conservatives finally achieved their goal during Clinton’s presidency – Democrats finally acknowledged the importance of a balanced budget. Congress and the President agreed to a budgeting process referred to as “Pay as you go”. Any proposal for a new program or initiative had to be deficit neutral – the proposer also had to specify which existing program would be cut or which taxes would be raised. Fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party had finally engineered the last piece necessary to control the size of government, to insure that the role for government that grew out of the Depression would work.
Except of course, Ideological Conservatives didn’t want it to work – they wanted it to fail. When George W. Bush was elected president, they knew voters wouldn’t support changing the role of government. Instead Ideological Conservatives chose a different path – they pushed for tax cuts that essentially de-funded the role of government. They replaced a balanced budget with massive deficits with the expectation that eventually this would cause our current role of government to collapse under its own weight.
The Bush years validated every nightmare fiscal conservatives had about deficit spending. The size of the government jumped. Deficit spending created a financial bubble that destabilized our economy. And when the bubble collapsed into a financial crisis and severe recession, people became even more dependent on government.
This, really, is the tragedy of the modern Republican Party. The fiscal conservatives had won. But everything they worked for was destroyed, not by the Democrats, but by Ideological Conservatives in their own party.