Clark Clifford Republicans

Have Republicans been co-opted by the Big Government they claim to hate?

Jeffrey Lord has a provocative piece in The American Spectator titled “Clark Clifford Republicans” and the ominous subhed “The GOP Establishment shell game: when winning is losing.” His intent is to call out Republicans who have been co-opted by Washington and Big Government. His effect is to demonstrate the lack of seriousness of conservative ideologues.

The piece takes its title from ultimate Washington Insider Clark Clifford, who alternated stints as a high level advisor to Democratic presidents–culminating in a stint as Lyndon Johnson’s last Secretary of Defense–with an enormously lucrative career as a high-powered lobbyist and influence peddler.

“Clark Clifford Republicans” defined as those who really don’t believe in the Reagan/Coolidge view — the conservative view and once upon a time the Republican view — of the world at all. Even if they give good lip service to the idea in public, it is clear from this piece that in the quiet corners of this or that Washington bistro they are muttering their equivalent derogations for Tea Partiers that match in some fashion Clifford’s “amiable dunce” derisive. Although, it appears, they have dropped the “amiable.”

It’s not simply that they have a Thomas E. Dewey/Nelson Rockefeller view of the world or, to use Barry Goldwater’s pithy description, they favor a “dime store New Deal.”

The real problem here is that all of Clark Clifford’s friends across the decades have so rooted Big Government in the psychology of Washington that “Republican Elites” have elected to accept the whole premise — and for reasons having to do with self-preservation simply cannot bring themselves to get seriously Reaganesque or Coolidge-like because to do so gnaws at their own economic vitals and capacity for influence. Both now hopelessly entangled with the concrete boxes of bureaucracy that literally litter the Washington landscape.

There is at least a kernel of truth here. Politicians and activist groups who sell themselves as “conservative” often operate in much the same way as their more liberal counterparts: working for more government regulation and more government spending, with the only differences being the programs and initiatives them favor–and the fact that Democrats are at least willing to raise taxes to pay for it.

The degree to which this reflects a “shell game” or that Republicans have bought into Big Government and the degree to which this reflects the simple realities of the playing field is debatable. Certainly, though, Republicans haven’t done a whole hell of a lot over the past three decades–i.e., the period since the Reagan Revolution–to make government smaller.

One can’t help but chuckle, though, at the the notion that following this pattern is a failure to “get seriously Reaganesque.” After all, it was Reagan–and you can’t get more Reaganesque than Reagan–who ushered in the era of massive deficits.

Data source: Stephen Bloch, U.S. Federal Deficits, Presidents, and Congress

Reagan talked a lot about reducing the size of government, eliminating entire cabinet departments, and the like. In terms of actual policy, however, Reagan had two big priorities: a massive increase in the Defense budget to win the Cold War and sizable cuts in the interest tax rates. He accomplished both. The price, which he willingly paid, was a tripling of the budget deficit and national debt.

Was Reagan a Clark Clifford Republican? Not at all. Unlike many of his imitators, who spout conservative bromides without much thought, Reagan’s ideology evolved organically over years of reading, writing, and speaking. But he was also a practical politician who’d learned in eight years as governor of California that effective governance requires compromise, accommodation, and prioritization.

Where is it written that the federal government has to have almost two million employees? Some 320,000 of those employees in Washington alone? Where is it written that life will end if America has no Department of Energy or Education to lobby?

One of my continuing frustrations with Movement Conservatives is that they seem oblivious to the fact that the calendar has changed. The Energy and Education Departments were convenient whipping boys in the 1980 campaign because they were new creations of arch foil Jimmy Carter, inaugurated in 1977 and 1980, respectively. (Education was created by separating the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare–which went back to 1953–into two cabinet departments.)  Reagan was unable to kill them–although it’s not evident that he tried all that hard. Three decades later, there’s just no appetite to get rid of them.

There is something decidedly off-kilter when the party elite for a party whose core premise is limited government is itself addicted to Big Government. So addicted that the very idea of eliminating program X (much less Department Y) is viewed with alarm as an expression of Outside the Mainstreamness or, more viscerally, “paranoia.”

No, mostly it’s just dismissed as tilting at windmills. Do we really get $23 billion a year in value out of having a federal education department given that education is almost exclusively a province of states and localities? No. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that the ED (it’s actual, rendered humorous in hindsight by Bob Dole, acronym) does more harm than good with regulations and overemphasis on standardized testing. But the existence of the ED is not even on the public’s radar screen at this juncture and it’s almost inconceivable that we’ll ever have 60 votes in the Senate to do away with it.

The question here is: is the GOP elite serious about limited government? Or not?

That’s actually a fair question, the short answer to which is Obviously not. The more complicated and accurate answer is that the GOP is a catch-all party housing people with all manner of priorities which are often in conflict. As previously noted, Reagan himself wanted both “small government” and a huge military. The military is a part of government–but the good part! Aside from the Ron Paul wing–which is small–even Small Government Republicans treat the 20 percent of the budget devoted to the DoD as sacrosanct.

There’s a wing of the GOP that’s willing to make meaningful cuts in Social Security and Medicare. We call those “Republicans who can’t get elected.”

The Tea Party exists because its members believe fervently — and correctly — that many who occupy or occupied seats in Congress and campaigned on platforms of limited government didn’t simply fail. They went over to the other side.

And some did. Moving from Peoria to Washington changes ones frame of reference. That’s not a knock on either place; it’s just a fact. Mostly, though, it’s a function of naivete running smack into the wall of reality. Governing is different from campaigning, in that one actually has to assemble enough votes for one’s program. Given the vagaries of the Senate and the power of the presidency, that ain’t easy.

Lord cites former Minnessota Congressman Vin Weber as Exhibit B of the Clark Clifford Republican:

There was a lesson in all this for the Tea Partiers, Weber said — one he had been trying to impart to them whenever he got the chance. “I think I know what they want to accomplish, and I agree with most of it,” he said. “But if they want to accomplish it, they need to ‘rise to the level of politics.’ I mean, you can’t just stand there and take a stand and say, ‘I’m not going to compromise on my position.’ Because you won’t achieve anything.”

To this, Lord–who is by no means a Washington neophyte–concedes, “Fair enough.” But then he launches into a several paragraph discussion of Weber’s bipartisan lobbying group which “spends its days and nights figuring out how to help regular Americans navigate the indecipherable maze of Big Government literally constructed by Mr. Clifford’s presidential heroes and friends over the course of the last eight decades. With not inconsiderable help from ‘the Republican elite.'”

Now, one can make a pretty good case against the existence of this sort of influence peddling. An incredible number of former Big Name Officials–and an even larger number of former insiders that most have never heard of–are making a very nice living helping clients influence government. But Lord’s objection seems to be that Republican acknowledgement that government is a leviathan that needs to be managed is a concession to Big Government.

The big deal here is that after 80-plus years of this mentality growing like topsy in the nation’s capital, on the eve of a presidential election in which the incumbent, a left-wing liberal Democrat, is leading the charge to make this a nation of, by and for the federal government — the so-called “Republican elite” is sitting in Washington feeding — literally — off of this Big Government mindset.

But would Big Government suddenly disappear if only Democrats lobbied it? Or would the loot simply go to causes favored by Democrats? If the latter, I’m not sure what the charge is. The closest thing to a useful attack on Weber is that his firm received some $360,000 in fees to lobby on behalf of Freddie Mac during the very time that it was helping burst the housing bubble. But, again, that’s an indictment of the lobbying system itself.

And where does Weber — and every other Clark Clifford Republican of any serious financial note — splash their cash in turn? That’s right. The circle game goes round and round, with the money earned from protecting Big Government used for contributions to GOP candidate A, B, or C. To make certain the access to Elected GOP Official A, B, or C is thus greased and that when push comes to shove, no serious damage has been done to Big Government. After all, the Mother of All Milk Cows must still be milkable.

This argument, buried on page 4 of a 6 page feature, is powerful. It is, I think, what Lord’s really trying to get at. But it’s all conjecture and insinuation.

[T]he “Republican Establishment” of Washington, D.C. is sitting around thinking of ways not of getting rid of the behemoth but rather — to borrow from the presidential oath of office — to “preserve, protect, and defend” Big Government.

Now, again, I think this is true in the sense that Republicans favor some parts of Big Government while Democrats favor other parts. But, aside from the fact that some big name Republicans are cashing in on the lobbying game–and that others are financing their campaigns for office from the same pot–what is the evidence that Republicans are being co-opted by this game?

This is exactly the mentality that explains so many GOP missteps of recent years. It explains why George W. Bush thought it was OK to nominate Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. It explains why the GOP Establishment flinches when a Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann or Rand Paul or Marco Rubio or Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle or Joe Miller step forth onto the stage nationally or within their states. It’s why Republican elites quietly and behind the scenes beseech talk radio stars like Rush or Sean Hannity or Mark Levin to ease up or lay off — which to their everlasting credit they never do. Why are you boosting a Christine O’Donnell, they will ask? Why are you giving all this exposure to Charlie Crist’s Tea Party-backed opponent Marco Rubio, they will ask? And so on. And on. And on.

An alternative explanation is that we genuinely think Bachmann, O’Donnell, Angle, and Miller are bad candidates and that Levin and Hannity are boobs.

It’s true that we got it wrong on Rubio, who went on to easily win the Senate seat in question and looks to be a rising star. But that’s mostly a function of viewing the race from a distance, viewing Crist as a perfectly mainstream Republican conservative, and not wanting to risk turning over a slam dunk seat to a Democrat by nominating an unknown.

Because, in one form, fashion or another the Establishment recognizes instantly that these people — and millions of others — are dead serious. The Tea Party is serious. Rush is serious. Hannity is serious. Levin is serious and writes a bestseller telling you why he’s serious. They are all so collectively serious that when they talk about “limiting government” they mean getting rid of entire Cabinet departments and federal agencies and the literal thousands of volumes of regulations that accompany them. Not to mention the thousands of federal bureaucrats who write them.

The problem is that, even to the extent the Tea Party is a cohesive group who agrees on every single issue–they’re not, by the way–they represent less than a third of the country. So, while asking for the moon is a smart negotiating strategy–see Obama, Barack for the folly of the opposite strategy of starting with your Best Offer–the reality is that, to get anything done, the Tea Party delegation will have to craft a majority in the House, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, and elect a likeminded president. That’s, to put it mildly, unlikely. So, they’ll have to compromise with Establishment Republicans and, quite possibly . . . Democrats. At which point they’ll be accused of being co-opted by the Washington scene.

PowerLine’s Steven Hayward takes up where Lord leaves off:

I recall two axioms attributed to my first mentor in DC, the great M. Stanton Evans, who first remarked back in the Nixon era, “Why is it that whenever one of us gets into a position of power, he’s no longer one of us?”  This was a simple reflection on the problem of people “going native” when they get in government.  (Again, recall the famous remark from a Bush I person who disdained the ideological fervor of their Reaganite predecessors: “We don’t have ideologies; we have mortgages.”  And resumes to pad, it should be added.)  The second axiom, which Stan may or may not have originated, is that too many conservatives come to Washington determined to clean out the swamp—only to discover that it’s a comfortable hot tub.

Now, both of these axioms have considerable merit. A lot of conservatives come to Washington with the intention of making it less powerful only to change their minds once they realize that it is now they who have the power and can therefore use it to Do Good. And, certainly, Washington has a lot more to offer a Newt Gingrich than does Georgia–which explains why he’s stayed in town peddling influence rather than going back to teach history at Podunk State.

Amusingly, though,  Hayward starts his piece gushing over the prospect of Gingrich winning the Republican nomination. Gingrich is a classic Clark Clifford Republican and called out as such by Lord.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. and you can’t get more Reaganesque than Reagan

    It’s like Taoism; the Reagan that is known is not the true Reagan. 😉

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Yes, let us eliminate the Department of Energy, just as we are reaching peak oil, coming into more and more competition with developing economies for the limited oil available, natural gas has extraction costs that we do not yet know the extent of (because the studies are either very limited or non-existent) (not by accident), nuclear energy is found to be, well, nuclear energy, and coal is the dirtiest possible source of energy.

    All this in a globally warming world (I’ll do it for you GA… “LOL.”).

    As to the Dept. of ED, I am largely in agreement with you, James.

  3. Moosebreath says:


    “”The question here is: is the GOP elite serious about limited government? Or not?”

    That’s actually a fair question, the short answer to which is Obviously not. The more complicated and accurate answer is that the GOP is a catch-all party housing people with all manner of priorities which are often in conflict.”

    I would posit that there is a large portion, and possibly a majority, of the non-elite of the GOP which does not want them to be a catch-all party, but one which is serious about limiting government, and which, if the elite does not bend to their will, they will try to depose the elite. I think the resulting party will be far less electable, and you apparently do too, but I suspect that they are willing to take that risk.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath: They certainly were in 2010, at least in some key states and districts. My strong guess remains that they won’t have enough power to nominate one of their own for president and the Establishment Mitt will instead win it. But they’ll be approximately as enthusiastic about a Romney presidency as the PUMAs and OWS crowd is about Obama.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    I think the emphasis on Coolidge and Reagan, two of the most libertarian-leaning Presidents in U.S. history distorts Lord’s view on what the Republican party is and what can be expected. Its always been the business interest party.

    All things given equal I’m sure business would like to see the Dept. of Education eliminated, but its unlilely to reduce federal taxation or otherwise impact business concerns. Same with Energy, which initally seemed like a vehicle for industrial policy, but has turned out to be more of a vehicle for business subsidies.

  6. Tlaloc says:

    It’s like Taoism; the Reagan that is known is not the true Reagan. 😉


  7. Liberty60 says:

    Re: “The question here is: is the GOP elite serious about limited government? Or not?”

    Obviously not, for the simple reason is that the GOP has never been dominated by ideological purists, but business interests.

    And a large federal government fits very nicely with business interests. Where exactly does anyone think all those billions in Dept of Energy and Dept of Education dollars go?

    Into the pockets of sundry and assorted businesses, all of whom lobby fiercely to keep the dollars flowing.

    But more to the point- as I pointed out once before on this blog, even if one were to completely defund every single thing the Federal government does except SS, Medicare, debt service, and Defense/ Homeland Security, we would still face a whopping trillion dollar deficit every single year.

    We can even leave out the pernicious influence of the librul Dems- even if the GOP had control of all 3 branches of government, what could they possibly do? How would they actually shrink government to balanced budget levels?

    The people who the author regards as “serious”- Rush, Hannity, et al. have never, to my knowledge, set out a single proposal that would actually do what they say they want to do, because it is mathematically impossible without tax increases, or drastically shrinking the military.

    The fact that the author can’t name any “serious” small government conservatives except radio entertainers is pretty telling. Its as if the liberals were unable to mention any “serious” liberals except Jon Stewart.

    The fact is,the GOP is not coopted by Democrats in Washington, but Republicans on Wall Street.

  8. ponce says:

    I always thought Republican talk about “smaller government” was really just racist code talk.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    J. K. Galbraith wrote extensively about countervailing power. The only entities with enough power to stand up to large corporations were governments and large unions. Which leaves us now with just government. When this ‘small government’ meme is fed to the Tea Party and movement conservatives, it really means a government too small to tell large corporations what to do. But not too small to continue what Republicans consider the real business of the government, passing out subsides to businesses.

  10. mattb says:

    Rush is serious. Hannity is serious. Levin is serious and writes a bestseller telling you why he’s serious.

    I continue to find it mind boggling that any “serious” conservative things that these three — and other Pundits like Morris — are serious about anything other than maintaining their audiences.

    Is it simply that Lord is attempting to ensure that he will continue to get airtime with these pundits? I expect each of these talkers will discuss this article at length (and how Lord is a “great American” who isn’t afraid to go against his party). And that chatter will, in turn deliver an audience of book buyers for the inevitable full length version of this article?

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Small government talk is and always has been (in my adult lifetime at least) propaganda. It’s nonsense. Given a GOP president and both houses government still did not shrink. Because they don’t really want it to shrink, they just want to run on manufacturing hatred of big government.

    It’s a shuck. It’s a con. It’s Grade A bulls–it.

    Government is Social Security, Medicare, Defense, debt service and whatever pocket change is left over for the poor. Does the GOP seriously want to cut one of the big budget items? Noooo. Not so long as there’s a Florida they don’t.

    The GOP only wants to cut one thing: money for poor people. That’s all they’ve ever wanted to cut. That’s all they ever will want to cut. In the GOP mind poor = black, Hispanic, and other varieties of “not us.” And they really, really want to cut that.

    But actually cut the size of government? Nah.

  12. Liberty60 says:

    Just for reference, here is the gist of the Federal budget-Numbers are from 2010, rounded off to a few billions of pocket change:

    Social Security= $1.0 Trillion
    Medicare= $0.8 Trillion
    Debt Service= $0.5 Trillion
    Defense/ Homeland Security= $1.0 Trillion
    Every other damn thing =$0.5 Trillion

    Total= $3.8 Trillion

    Social Security tax= $1.0 Trillion
    Taxes= $1.1 Trillion

    Total= 2.1 Trillion

    This, at a glance, is why the Republican Party cannot, will not, ever balance the Federal budget.

  13. TheColourfield says:

    Anybody that thinks that Limbaugh, Hannity or Levin is worth listening to is an idiot.

    Bruce Bartlett is a conservative, those guys are a complete clown show. They are lying buffoons.

  14. Jay Dubbs says:

    Umm, your chart has the GOP in charge of the House during the 80’s. Did I miss something?

  15. Eric Florack says:

    Have Republicans been co-opted by the Big Government they claim to hate?

    Certainly, the GOP establishment has, but not the GOP Rank and file. Hence, the Tea Party, and the disconnect between the candidates the GOP says should be nominated…(Romney, Huntsman, et al) and the ones who ar popular among GOP rank and file.

    That the question gets asked means the message is finally starting to sink in.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @Jay Dubbs: That is odd; certainly, the Dems controlled the House for a looong time before the 1994 elections. Not sure what the deal is with that.

  17. Jay Tea says:

    @Liberty60: Actually, your chart makes me wonder if ANYONE can balance that budget. You say that there’s simply no way of cutting spending enough to bring it in. I don’t think that there’s no way of jacking up revenues to close that gap without utterly destroying the economy. Maybe there’s a way a combination of both might work, but I’m really skeptical.


  18. sam says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Have Republicans been co-opted by the Big Government they claim to hate?

    Certainly, the GOP establishment has, but not the GOP Rank and file.

    Gee, how many of those R&F folks are on Social Security and Medicare? A whole bunch, I’ll bet. And, as I like to point out from time to time, the Republican Party has become a Southern Party (that’s where the base is, Bit), and as we all know, the United States of Peckerwoodia (ie, the Red States) are net importers of federal dollars (from the Blue states) . Without that federal tit to suck on, the bases states of the Republican party would be even deeper backwaters than they are now.

    How’s that for co-optation, Bit?

  19. Rob in CT says:

    It’s why Republican elites quietly and behind the scenes beseech talk radio stars like Rush or Sean Hannity or Mark Levin to ease up or lay off — which to their everlasting credit they never do.

    Anyone who writes that is an assclown. The end.

  20. Eric Florack says:

    How’s that for co-optation, Bit?

    So, what you’re saying is they created a dependancy on government, and therefore can never be put out of power?

    Glad we agree, that WAS the motive.

  21. Liberty60 says:

    @Jay Tea:

    Actually, a combination of tax increases and spending cuts WOULD balance the budget, once we get out of the Recession.

    But for the moment, spending cuts and tax increases would only add strain to the economy.

    Which then argues for pushing for spending now, and deficit reduction later.