May 8, 2005
Rx For the Dems: Oppose Big Republican Government

By Steve Chapman

Republicans used to believe that the government was too big, that federal deficits should be illegal, that politicians should butt out of your private concerns, and that our military should defend the nation, not trying to make the world a better place.

But that was the Republican Party of old -- say, 2000. Under President Bush, they've abandoned that turf. So here's an idea: Maybe the Democrats should occupy it.

Those positions were not a bad formula for winning elections, as the GOP showed in the 1990s. Back then, led by Newt Gingrich, Republicans in Congress forced President Clinton to accept a plan to eliminate the deficit. They opposed the "humanitarian" interventions in the Balkans. In 2000, George W. Bush beat an opponent who he charged was "going to grow the federal government in the largest increase since Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965."

But the party of limited government now thinks the sky is the limit. Under its stewardship, budget surpluses have been washed away by a flood of red ink. As a new report from the Cato Institute points out, the president who warned about Al Gore's free-spending ways "has presided over the largest overall increase in inflation-adjusted federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson."

The party that wanted to empower families and block government intrusion pushed its way into the Terri Schiavo case. After spurning nation-building in 2000, Bush has embarked on nation-building in Iraq -- part of a high-minded mission to spread democracy throughout the planet. The military is so overextended that we may have to bring back the draft, which was abolished in the name of individual freedom by a Republican president.

But if Republicans don't have any use for their traditional policies, plenty of others do. People are not lining up to support the president on many things. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March found 53 percent of Bush's citizenry thinks the Iraq war was not worth fighting. Only 37 percent of Americans say the administration shares their priorities on foreign policy.

Bush insists that our efforts in Iraq are spurring democratic change elsewhere. But that's a dubious goal in middle America. According to a recent New York Times-CBS News survey, "Given the choice between trying to change dictatorships to democracies, generally, or staying out of other countries' affairs, 59 percent think the U.S. should stay out."

Once upon a time, the Democratic Party would have endorsed active measures to promote democracy. But no more. On the choice of spreading democracy or staying out, 78 percent of Democrats favor staying out -- compared to only 33 percent of Republicans.

The Terri Schiavo affair exposed to Americans something else they don't like about Bush and his party. In a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, 55 percent of those surveyed said that when it comes to moral values, Republicans are "trying to use the federal government to interfere in the private lives of most Americans." Three out of four disapproved of Congress' actions in the Schiavo case.

Grover Norquist, the Reaganite head of Americans for Tax Reform, used to describe the modern conservative movement as a "leave us alone coalition." But lately, it's morphed into the Busybody Brigade.

Bush and his congressional allies don't want to leave us alone, and they don't want to leave the rest of the world alone. They favor an active, expensive government intent on imposing their values at home and abroad, whether the recipients want them or not. And they're willing to ask the next generation to pay any price for that mission.

So the Democrats could counter with their own libertarian theme: The U.S. government should mind its own business, not anyone else's. That approach fits with many of their modern beliefs: balancing the budget, rejecting open-ended military crusades in favor of protecting vital interests, keeping the government out of the bedroom and the doctor's office, and upholding personal privacy against unwarranted government intrusions -- from the Patriot Act to end-of-life decisions.

Conservatives may retort that the onetime keepers of the nanny state will never be able to give up their urge to meddle in the economy -- and they may be right. But even Democrats no longer favor old standbys like price regulation and unlimited entitlements. They've learned to appreciate the virtues of free markets, and they even supported welfare reform. So they're obviously capable of learning.

Being out of power could make them even more open to change. If Republicans want to take over as advocates of big, bossy, bloated government, the Democrats should be more than happy to trade places.

2005 Creators Syndicate

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Steve Chapman

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