Conservatives Call for Republican Ouster

Washington Monthly collects a series of essays from prominent fiscal conservatives and otherwise disgruntled Republicans arguing that it’s time for Republicans to go.

Christopher Buckley, son of Wm. F Jr., leads the way with “Let’s quit while we’re behind.”

On Capitol Hill, a Republican Senate and House are now distinguished by—or perhaps even synonymous with—earmarks, the K Street Project, Randy Cunningham (bandit, 12 o’clock high!), Sen. Ted Stevens’s $250-million Bridge to Nowhere, Jack Abramoff (Who? Never heard of him), and a Senate Majority Leader who declared, after conducting his own medical evaluation via videotape, that he knew every bit as much about the medical condition of Terry Schiavo as her own doctors and husband. Who knew that conservatism means barging into someone’s hospital room like Dr. Frankenstein with defibrillator paddles? In what chapter of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom or Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind is that principle enunciated?

All fair criticisms and, indeed, all things I’ve criticized along with a substantial chunk of the conservative commentariat. Corruption and abuse of power for personal or political ends is shameful. Does Buckley really believe, though, that these would end were the Democrats in charge?

I seem to recall scandals that ousted several key members of the Democratic leadership, including a Speaker and several key committee chairmen in the late 1980s and early 1990s, ultimately ending with Gingrich and company running them out in 1994. Surely, Rostenkowski was no better than Stevens. And goodness knows Robert Byrd has paved over the entire state of West Virginia several times over on our dime.

Bruce Bartlett says, “Bring on Pelosi.” He makes some of the same arguments as Buckley but adds some more interesting ones.

[O]ne-party government encourages the majority to pass legislation using votes only from its own side and usually leads it to bargain first with those on its own extremes (those least willing to compromise on anything) instead of moderates across the aisle. This almost guarantees that controversial lawmaking will be the norm.

Divided government has other advantages, too. For one, it restrains government spending. The budget surpluses of the late 1990s resulted mainly from Bill Clinton’s unwillingness to support the Republican Congress’s priorities and its unwillingness to support his. For another, it improves our foreign policy. We had divided government during 36 of 55 years between 1947 and 2001, which meant that both parties had to take responsibility for the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq (the first one). America is much more effective in the international arena when it has a high degree of bipartisanship in its foreign policy. In the not-too-distant past, Republicans including Arthur Vandenberg and Democrats including Daniel Patrick Moynihan understood this. With the current war in Iraq, however, Democrats who support the war are forced to oppose it, and Republicans who oppose the war are forced to support it. This makes other countries unsure of our resolve and commitments.

There’s definitely something to this. Several of my OTB co-authors have made some of these points as well. At least on the issue of spending restraint, they have a point.

I’m less sanguine about the bipartisan comity argument, though. Whether it’s a function of talk radio, the permanent campaign, or something else, American politics has been incredibly polarized for the last twenty years or so; to some extent, since the Vietnam/Watergate era. Certainly, there have been periods throughout our history, going back to the Colonial era, even worse than the present. But they tended to be sporadic rather than permanent. The opposition party is in permanent destruct mode against the sitting president, which ever party or leader fills those roles. I can’t see how a Speaker Pelosi would change that.

Joe Scarborough, he of the insipid eponymous talk show, muses “And we thought Clinton had no self-control.”

But compare Clinton’s 3.4 percent growth rate to the spending orgy that has dominated Washington since Bush moved into town. With Republicans in charge of both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, spending growth has averaged 10.4 percent per year. And the GOP’s reckless record goes well beyond runaway defense costs. The federal education bureaucracy has exploded by 101 percent since Republicans started running Congress. Spending in the Justice Department over the same period has shot up 131 percent, the Commerce Department 82 percent, the Department of Health and Human Services 81 percent, the State Department 80 percent, the Department of Transportation 65 percent, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development 59 percent. Incredibly, the four bureaucracies once targeted for elimination by the GOP Congress—Commerce, Energy, Education, and Housing and Urban Development—have enjoyed spending increases of an average of 85 percent.

A substantial part of that is explainable by the fact that Clinton presided over the transition from a Cold War economy to a peacetime economy and Bush the reverse. Certainly, much or all of the increase at Defense, Justice, and Transportation is directly attributable to counter-terrorism and the Iraq War.

Still, explosions at agencies Reagan always talked about abolishing–although never doing anything about it–is entirely discretionary. Whether ramping up spending for No Child Left Behind or other programs makes sound policy sense is debatable and I’m not sufficiently interested in or knowledgable about the particulars to engage in that debate. But it’s inarguable that it has occured on the GOP’s watch.

William Niskanen is ready to “Give divided government a chance.” He echoes the other columnists, noting, “From the dawn of the Cold War until today, we’ve had only two periods of what could be called fiscal restraint: The last six years of the Eisenhower administration, and the last six years of the Clinton administration, both intervals in which the opposition controlled Congress.”

Let’s see, 1955-1961 and 1995-2001. Is there anything else they have in common besides bipartisanship and low spending? Hmm. Well, the Korean War ended in 1953 and Vietnam didn’t ramp up until 1964. And the Cold War ended in 1991 and the boom started around 1993. There was this terrorist attack in September 2001. Those other events might have something to do with spending.

Richard Viguerie exclaims, “The show must not go on.” His rationale is different than the others’. Basically, he argues that losing is good because it forces parties to re-evaluate themselves, noting that the defeats in 1964 and 1974 led to Reagan’s victory in 1980.

Of course, 20 years in the wilderness is a long time. And, aside from a massive tax cut (which he later incrementally reversed) and massive increases in defense spending (which led to astronomical deficits but helped end the Cold War), it’s not clear how much better Reagan was in actually achieving the conservative ideal than Bush. Despite the rhetoric, no cabinet agencies were abolished, little was done to rein in social spending, abortion remained legal, the liberalization of the culture continued, etc.

Indeed, many hard core conservatives were saying much the same toward the end of the Gipper’s tenure as they are about Bush. (As were liberal pundits during the latter days of the Clinton administration.) That’s always going to be the case, as the intellectuals are never satisfied with the outputs created in the cauldron of compromise that is the American political system.

The idea that, because they have majorities in both House of Congress and control the White House, Republicans can simply rule by fiat is absurd. This is not the UK or another parliamentary system. Parties are a mere label, with several on both sides of the aisle regularly voting against their leadership. And the checks and balances in the system, especially the Senate, require considerable compromise and negotiation absent overwhelming majorities.

As I’ve noted many times–not that it’s an original observation–the reason politicians spend so much is not because they are flouting the will of the people but exactly the opposite: They are giving voters what they want. While most people are theoretically for fiscal discipline, they nonetheless want low taxes while simultaneously demanding that government fix every conceivable problem.

If people really wanted spending restraint, they’d stop re-electing the likes of Byrd and Stevens. That’s not going to happen any time soon, methinks.

UPDATE: Taegan Goddard passes on word that Rasmussen has Byrd beating Republican challenger John Raese 63% to 30%. “Key statistic: Byrd is viewed favorably by 74% of West Virginians, including 47% who view him very favorably.” But just think how popular he’d be if he hadn’t brought in all that highway money!

FILED UNDER: 2006 Election, Congress, Political Theory, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Anderson says:

    Basically, he argues that losing is good because it forces parties to re-evaluate themselves,

    Somehow, the Dems have managed to avoid this, despite plenty of opportunities.

  2. James Joyner says:

    True that. The problem is that nominees are chosen by a more rabid primary electorate, who always think the reason they lost last time was because they had a too meek candidate who wasn’t true to their core principles.

  3. Anderson says:

    The problem is that nominees are chosen by a more rabid primary electorate, who always think the reason they lost last time was because they had a too meek candidate who wasn’t true to their core principles.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true of Dems; it sounds more true of the Repubs, who at least *have* “core principles.” Dems are much less organized, and their primaries probably reflect that.

    I liked Djerejian’s quote of David Cameron, UK Tory:

    I am a liberal conservative, rather than a neo-conservative. Liberal – because I support the aim of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention. Conservative – because I recognise the complexities of human nature, and am sceptical of grand schemes to remake the world. A liberal conservative approach to foreign policy today is based on five propositions. First, that we should understand fully the threat we face. Second, that democracy cannot quickly be imposed from outside. Third, that our strategy needs to go far beyond military action. Fourth, that we need a new multilateralism to tackle the new global challenges we face. And fifth, that we must strive to act with moral authority.

    Frankly, while the actual content of these words is ragingly debatable, I can sign up for that. The Dems could use some UK speechwriters, I think.

  4. Steve says:

    RE: The case for divided government

    I’m not very fond of the idea of subjecting this theory to a real test. I see a few data points, but can we really draw the conclusion that a few data points constitutes proof?

    The American politics is not a closed system. There is only one constant and that is the framework of the government. All the other factors are variables that interact both domestically and internationally. Would anyone accept the Democrats and Republicans of the 1950s as the same parties today? Does the inclination of the electorate of the 1960s replicate the inclination of the electorate today?

    Those who argue the case for divided govenrnment, here, today, in 2006, make a bold assumption that past performance guarantees future results.

    What evidence do we have that the President, the big spending big government Republican, would change his behavior? The primary reason we have large budgets today is because the President and Congress have compromised. They get what they want, more or less. He gets what he wants, more or less. Sure the libertarians and the economic conservatives get the short end of the deal, but so does the far left. Bush, for all practial purposes, has assembled a bi-partisan majority for more spending. One more data point supporting George Will’s thesis, “the American public is philosophically conservative and operationally liberal.”

    If November gives us a Democratic majority in the House, we will not only get divided government, we will get a weakened President who is more likely to compromise with Democratic spending plans.

  5. Pug says:

    If November gives us a Democratic majority in the House, we will not only get divided government, we will get a weakened President who is more likely to compromise with Democratic spending plans.

    Or we may get a president who finally has the cojones to insist on cuts and veto some spending bills.

    Bush’s only veto has been on stem cell research. He has been completely unable to resist spending by his own party.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: Yup on UK speechwriters. Perhaps because of their history of feudalism, Brits seem not to mind politicians who don’t talk like they do. The fact that most MPs came up through the Oxford-Cambridge old boy’s network doesn’t hurt, either.

  7. I have an alternative suggestion. Increase the GOP majority. If you need 50+Cheney to pass a law (and 55 + 5 to vote on passing the law) and the theory is that majority government causes parties to negotiate first within their party, expand the majority.

    As an example, imagine a 70 to 30 split (not so hard to do, the democrats peaked at 76 about 70 years ago and had 68 seats 40 years ago). Now you have 10 votes to give to get the bill to a vote and 20 votes to give to get the bill passed (assuming Cheney isn’t in a secret location). This would seem to give a lot more room to finding a path without the party extremists.

    Sorry. At best a divided congress is good for neither party getting to go their way. We have to many important issues, domestically and internationally, facing the country for me to by the argument that gridlock is the solution.

  8. Kent G. Budge says:

    If people really wanted spending restraint, they’d stop re-electing the likes of Byrd and Stevens. That’s not going to happen any time soon, methinks.

    That pretty much nails it. My Congressman is doing exactly what his constituents elected him to do: Pull as much of the pie to this district as possible. It’s all the frikkin’ Congressmen from other districts (who are doing the same) that are the problem. 😉

    The remarkable transmogrification of the Republicans, once in power, shows that this immutable law of self-interest knows no party loyalties.