If the rise of the Tea Party movement and the results of the 2010 midterms showed anything, it was that Americans were serious about reducing the size, cost, and intrusiveness of the federal government.
It’s puzzling therefore, that the 2012 Republican presidential field is so devoid of small-government conservatives. Oh sure, they all talk about cutting spending and reducing the deficit. They rail against the Obama administration’s big-government agenda and occasionally even criticize George W. Bush’s big-government conservatism.
But if you look at their records and policy positions, there is more than enough reason to be skeptical.
Mitt Romney. One word: Romneycare. But Romney’s big-government record goes well beyond the Massachusetts health-care plan. For example, Romney has been a big supporter of federal involvement in education. He backed No Child Left Behind and once called for the federal government to buy a laptop computer for every child born in America. He has pushed for increased energy and farm subsidies. His record as Massachusetts governor was decidedly mixed. In the Cato Institute’s biannual ranking of governors on fiscal issues, Romney received a grade of only “C.” His philosophy of governing can be seen from his comment, “I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t always ask for federal money whenever I got the chance.”
Mike Huckabee. It would hard to be a bigger big-government conservative than the former Arkansas governor. This is, after all, a candidate who devoted an entire section of his book to denouncing economic conservatives and libertarians. He calls the anti-tax Club for Growth the “club for greed.” He supports a national smoking ban. Because he believes that “art and music are as important as math and science” in public schools, he wants these programs funded federally. He supports increased agricultural subsidies generally and ethanol subsidies specifically. While opposing Obamacare, he supported expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and he has been skeptical of most conservative proposals for entitlement reform. His record of tax and spending increases as governor of Arkansas was so bad it earned him an F on the Cato Institute’s governors report card.
Newt Gingrich. Okay, maybe there is a bigger-government conservative than Huckabee. Gingrich was most recently seen in Iowa, where he denounced anyone who opposed ethanol subsidies. On health care, Gingrich has backed an individual mandate, and while Romney can at least claim that his mandate was at the state level, Gingrich supported a federal one. He was also a prominent proponent of George Bush’s Medicare prescription-drug benefit. He has pushed for greater federal involvement in education, once suggesting that the federal government should provide students with a trip to Disneyland in exchange for good grades. And who can forget Gingrich’s tree-hugging summit in New Hampshire with Al Gore? Tea partiers may well question Gingrich’s endorsement of Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave — as speaker he made it mandatory reading for House Republicans — a book that says the U.S. Constitution “is increasingly obsolete, and hence increasingly, if inadvertently, oppressive and dangerous to our welfare.”
Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty ended his time as governor on a strong note, earning an “A” on Cato’s scorecard, but the first part of his tenure was more problematic. Pawlenty supported expansion of the State Children’s Health Program and briefly flirted with a Romneycare-like health plan. He pushed for a statewide smoking ban in workplaces, restaurants, and bars; increased the state’s minimum wage; imposed some of the most aggressive and expensive renewable-energy mandates in the country, and has been an ardent supporter of farm subsidies and ethanol.
Haley Barbour. Barbour has been one of the few candidates to call for cuts in both defense spending and entitlements. But, his gubernatorial record is far less inspirational, with both state spending and taxes going up during his tenure. Cato’s fiscal report card gave him a “C.” His “pro-business” message has often amounted to support for corporate welfare.
Mitch Daniels. Having been George W. Bush’s budget director is not a credential that screams “limited government.” Daniels’s record as governor has been better — solid, but not spectacular. Cato’s scorecard gave him a “B.” But his budget and tax cutting have been more small ball than grand design. Worse, he has been willing to consider a national Value Added Tax (VAT). On health care, he expanded his state’s Medicaid program and has been tepid in opposing Obamacare.
All of this raises the question of whether there could be an electoral surprise. Could tea partiers rally around one of the dark horses such as Michele Bachmann (unless she continues her recent swing into social issues), Gary Johnson, or Herman Cain? At the moment, it doesn’t look as if they have the money or organization to make a serious run. But stranger things have happened in the last couple of years. Will there be a serious Draft Christie movement? Or will one of the candidates above answer the questions around their record and grasp the small-government mantle?
In the meantime, limited-government, fiscal conservatives are still looking for a champion.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.