Conservatives Abandoning the GOP?

Mark Tapscott argues, persuasively, that the Republican “compromise” on spending is further alienating them from fiscal conservatives.

The reality is the compromise would preserve the bulk of the earmarks treasured by the Senate’s Old Bulls while reducing funding needed by the military in the War against Terrorism.


This is the kind of fundamental smoke and mirrors dishonesty that has helped fuel the biggest increase in federal spending and entitlements since World War II … under a Republican Congress and a Republican President, both of which were elected in great part because they promised to complete the job begun by Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Since George W. Bush took office in 2001, he and the Republican majorities in the Senate and House have talked the talk on cutting federal spending and reducing the power and influence of government but they haven’t walked it. In fact, they have run about as fast as their political legs would take them in the opposite direction, piling up thousands of special interest earmarks, adding the biggest expansion of entitlement spending since 1965, pushing failed federal programs in areas like education to record heights and increasing the national debt to previously unimagined levels.

Put another way, they’ve done pretty much what a Democratic president and Congress would have done had the election of 1994 not prompted Bill Clinton’s hollow 1995 State of the Union proclamation that “the era of Big Government is over.”

He’s right, of course.

The thing is, I’m not sure that it will much matter politically. There are several reasons for this:

1. Neither the Democrats nor any plausible third party (A chimera: Third parties are not plausible. -ed.) offer a better alternative on spending. My guess is that the Democrats would spend about the same amount of money, with perhaps less devoted to Defense and more devoted to national health care and other social programs. The earmarks would simply go to their Big Bulls rather than ours.

2. Most voters love big spenders. Sure, polls will tell you that people don’t want tax cuts and prefer a balanced budget. They tell pollsters that because it’s what they think they’re supposed to say as responsible citizens. They don’t vote that way, however. People hate pork barrel projects, which they define as spending on things they don’t support that benefits people from somewhere else. Simultaneously, they demand their congressmen bring their share of money back to the state/district to support much needed jobs and infrastructure development programs.

3. Few conservatives vote mostly on non-tax fiscal issues. The Barry Goldwater-Jack Kemp-Phil Gramm wing of the Movement has shrunk while the social conservative wing has grown. National security hawks are also back in ascendency after a short dormancy in the 1990s. Because of that, the first sentence of this trumps the second:

Yes, Bush has been tough on defense, he has put two excellent conservative jurists on the U.S. Supreme Court and he persuaded Congress to cut taxes. But the nation’s increasingly perilous financial straits sooner or later will undermine even those accomplishments.

Indeed, this is mostly because:

4. Ronald Reagan severed Republicans’ commitment to fiscal responsibility. Reagan got elected in 1980 for a variety of reasons, most important of which is that he was the anti-Jimmy Carter. He ran on a diverse platform that focused on three planks: Massive rebuilding of the military, cutting taxes, and shrinking the size of government. Because of all of the above plus a Democratic Congress, Reagan decided that he would settle for the first two.

Reagan presided over a doubling in the size of the national debt despite a booming economy that was bringing in record revenues. This was not, as critics allege, because the tax cuts let people keep too much of their money but because Reagan and the Congress were spending the money faster than they could count it.

Reagan was re-elected in a landslide and was one of the most beloved presidents in history. Conservatives, including Tapscott numerous times in this post, still think of him as an icon. So, incidentally, does George W. Bush.

Ironically, there was another guy called George Bush who ran against Reagan, calling his policies “Voodoo Economics.” He eventually got elected president and raised taxes in order to pay for a very popular war. He failed to get re-elected and Republicans don’t like him all that much.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor 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. Dave Schuler says:

    James, could you explain to me the process by which fiscal conservatives have convinced themselves that there was a time that fiscal conservatism dominated the Republican Party and Republicans held both houses of Congress? That ain’t the way I remember it. My recollection is that neither Republicans nor Democrats were particularly opposed to federal government spending—they just differed on how they wanted to spend the dough.

    I’ve sometimes wondered if a significant difference between “conservatives” and “progressives” (not scare quotes: I don’t think either term is too apt at this point) is that conservatives hearken back to a (generally imaginary) Golden Age some time in the past and for progressives the (mostly illusory) Golden Age is always in the future.

  2. James Joyner says:

    The Republicans have only been a Movement Conservative party nominally since 1964 and practically since 1980. Both Goldwater and Reagan talked about fiscal discipline.

    Ironically, the last Republican president who was truly a fiscal hawk was Eisenhower, who no one really thinks of as a “conservative.”

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    I think your point number one is the key one. To look beyond the two parties you have to assume a third party that would 1) really be absolutely reliable on fiscal restraint, 2) able to simultaneously win the presidency and enough seats in congress to uphold a presidential veto. What is much more realistic is that you would find the third party throwing the election to the party the third party supporters dislike the most. A far left third party would guarantee a republican victory as it pulled votes out of the democratic party. Likewise for a far right third party ensuring a democratic win. A truly centrist third party would depend on the primary issue it was running on as to which party it would hurt most. If it truly pulled uniformly from both parties (almost a definition of being a centrist party), then it wouldn’t change the election, but I can guarantee that the losing party would see the “defectors” as the cause of their loss.

    If you look at the recent three votes on earmarks, you found (a) the votes were all close with no vote more than 4 votes from switching, (b) there were democrats and republicans on both sides of the issue and (c) more republicans were voting against the earmarks and the number of republicans was higher than their proportion of senate seats and more democrats were voting for the earmarks and doing so out of proportion to their numbers.

    This is not an issue that either party is marching in lock step, though the republicans hold a slim preference towards fiscal restraint compared to the democrats. Given that the current number of republicans is as high a number of republicans in the house or senate as we have seen in the last 75 years, the answer may actually lie in increasing the number of republicans. If republicans voted in the same proportion as they have and democrats voted in the same proportion, then adding 3 more republicans would have let all three votes to block pork pass.

    You can read more at the link

  4. Ratoe says:

    I think Tapscott misses two important points that are driving fiscal conservatives away from Bush and the Republicans.

    First, is the simple issue of policy ineptitude. From poor war planning, to the prescription drug madness, to Homeland Security’s role in the bureaucratic bungling of disaster relief, there is a growing sense that the folks in charge have little competence.

    Many conservatives support–in general–these policies, but have little faith in Bush’s judgement in personnel matters. The ineptitutde results in massive waste of government funds.

    The second revolves around ethics. When you have a Republican Cabinet official bragging that government contracts are given out as political favors–rather than on the basis of cost effectiveness–this should turn off any citizen who demands responsive governance.

    It will be interesting to see how Bush responds to the Alphonso Jackson scandal. Anything short of a sacking will be tantamount to an embrace of a culture of corruption.

  5. Roger says:

    The only fiscal conservative in the last quarter century was Bill Clinton. He cut spending and shrunk govt. infrastructure and workforce. Yes, he raised taxes, which he then wisely used to pay down the deficit. Probably no truer conservative in the fiscal sense has served since Washington.

  6. andrew says:

    You have to be joking Roger. The Cold War ended and defense spending was cut to around 3% of GDP by the end of the 90’s. That’s why there was a surplus for a brief period of time. Well, that and a giant stock market bubble which couldn’t last forever.

  7. Roger says:

    No, just stating the facts.

  8. Roger says:

    I guess I should concede that the growth of internet commerce championed by Clinton/Gore had nothing to do with that random “stock market bubble” and that the gutted military Clinton left succeeded on pure random luck in knocking out the Taliban Afghanistan and knocking out the Iraqi military so handily in a matter of weeks. Still, facts are facts.