Has the Republican Party Lost Its Soul?

My friend and Media Bloggers Association colleague Mark Tapscott, who heads the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation, believes Ronald Reagan would be very disappointed at the reckless spending of his party.

Has the GOP Lost Its Soul? (TownHall)

President Reagan often said it̢۪s hard to recall that you came to drain the swamp when you̢۪re up to your armpits in alligators. Republicans like Rep. Don Young of Alaska would rather use your tax dollars to build a scenic bridge to the swamp.


Republicans took over Congress in 1994 promising in the “Contract with America†to cut taxes, reduce federal spending and eliminate unneeded bureaucracy. They’ve used the same message to retain majorities in both chambers for all but a couple of the succeeding years. [Actually, it was only the feckless post-election switch by Jumpin’ Jim Jeffords that cost the Republicans the majority. The GOP has emerged in control of both Houses in every election since 1994. -ed.]


Simply put, the GOP majority has been spending federal tax dollars like drunken sailors since 2001, increasing outlays by an average of 7.25 percent annually. Inflation increased by a mere 2.0 percent average in those same years.

Bush has basically stepped aside, not once exercising his veto, compared to 78 vetoes by Reagan, who had to deal with powerful Democrat majorities in the House throughout his White House years. Having a president who won’t veto unleashes the big spenders. That transportation bill that Bush accepted and Young stuffed contained more than 6,500 “earmarks’ — i.e. pork barrel projects. Reagan vetoed a 1987 transportation bill with a mere 152 projects.

While one could argue that spending would have risen even more had the Democrats won those elections, there’s really no way of knowing. Almost certainly, the priorities for this profligate spending would have been allocated differently. Regardless, it’s hard to deny that the Republican Party has long abandoned conservatism in the fiscal sense.

Partly, this is a function of being a majority party rather than a minority party. Power is addictive and corrupting. Those in charge have the ability to spend the taxpayers’ money in a way to help further their own political ambitions; those in opposition can merely complain about it loudly and hope to score political points.

Perhaps more importantly, the Republicans have discovered that the public really doesn’t care about limited spending. When Reagan criticized “tax and spend Democrats,” the public only heard the “tax” part. The United States is, after all, a country founded partly on opposition to taxation. (One suspects the average colonist was much more concerned about “taxation” rather than the lack of “representation.”)

Americans love it when their congressman manages to nab a few billion dollars in pork for projects in their districts. I haven’t seen any polling on the subject but would be willing to bet that most Alaskans are tickled pink about the massive transportation bill. Probably, too, are most Americans. Even President Bush, who will presumably never run for political office again, was running around last week touting all the jobs the bill would create. When the rewards for irresponsibility outweigh the penalties, irresponsibility will reign.

I would note, too, that Ronald Reagan was only a great budget cutter in comparison to George W. Bush and the current Republican Congress. It’s true that he vetoed several spending bills put forth by the mostly Democratic Congresses* he faced but the fact of the matter was that spending, even non-defense spending, soared during the eight years he was in office. He talked a lot about things like cutting welfare spending, closing down the Departments of Energy and Education, and so forth but actually made little effort in those directions. He was much more concerned about rebuilding our nation’s defense and reducing the tax burden than on cutting spending.

*The Democrats controlled the House throughout his presidency and the Senate from the midway point of his second term.

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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. Ryan says:

    At some point in the not-too-distant past, Republicans realized you could never shrink the federal government by saying “let’s shrink the federal government.” The next best thing (to Grover Norquist and his ilk) is cutting taxes and increasing spending. Eventually, the thinking goes, the federal government will become so bloated that it will literally contract in upon itself, taking with it all of the sacred Democrat spending cows (i.e., conservative bugaboos like welfare, education, the arts, etc.) of the last 75 years. The don’t-tax-but-spend Republicans know exactly what they’re doing (or, at least they think they do).

  2. tubino says:

    It is very interesting to learn about the buildup of the national debt as a proportion of GDP.
    Graph of National Debt

    Question: you wonder if Reagan would approve of Bush II. Check the graph and ask yourself if the Reagan of your memory would approve of the real Reagan of history.

  3. tubino says:

    Here’s a bar chart by president showing buildup of the national debt as a percentage of GDP

    In some ways it is an even better visual representation than the graph in my previous post. The point is that Bush II may outdo both Bush I and Reagan — and that’s saying a LOT.

    On the bright side, if consistency is what you want, the GOP is it.

  4. NJ voter says:

    Don’t you think its about time we seriously considered abolishing all taxes, and funded the government entirely on borrowing?

    I see no downside to this…help me.

  5. tubino says:

    Don’t you think its about time we seriously considered abolishing all taxes, and funded the government entirely on borrowing?

    That’s good. Anything Argentina can do, we can do better! Gosh, wouldn’t you love to see the faces of those international lenders when they realize we are never going to repay them! PRICELESS!

    Um… but what happens after they decide it’s not fun anymore to loan us billions each day? We’d have to pay astronomical interest rates to make it worth the risk to anyone… We’d have to depend on the kindness of the IMF to bail us out…

    So what DID Cheney mean when he said “Deficits don’t matter. Reagan proved that.”?

  6. Mikey says:

    I’m a Republican and I live in Michigan. Trust me, I’m thrilled to have some highway dollars flowing into this state.
    Really, I am.

  7. The turning point was the government shutdown over the budgeting process in 1995. Given a very clear choice between principle and power, the party collective blinked and gave into demands for more spending in order to avoid risking their electoral prospects. And once they did that once, it became increasingly easier to do it again and again.

    It’s been downhill ever since.