In the last few days, I have enjoyed many of the articles and blog posts about Ronald Reagan’s inspirational “Time for Choosing” speech from 50 years ago. There is no doubt that Reagan brought a vision to the conservative movement that was badly needed at the time and that his speech still rallies Americans, old and young, around an important ideal. There is also no doubt that the conservative movement could use such a revival — another great communicator of his caliber would be just the ticket.
But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that rhetoric can only take a movement so far. In my mind, what we have lacked in the past thirty years has not been great speeches, but principled leadership. Inspiring speeches about what we, as a nation, can aspire to are always nice, but they are meaningless without actions from our lawmakers consistent with what they claim they believe.
We have to face up to the fact that Republicans in Congress have been a contributing factor to the growth of government over the past thirty years. While Henry Olsen is right that Reagan was no libertarian, nor was his speech just about shrinking the size of government, the Republican-led or abetted growth in federal programs and spending is totally inconsistent with Reagan’s inspiring vision of limited government and personal responsibility. Talking about spending alone, a look at the data shows that spending often grows under Republican presidents, and it’s then Democrats who institutionalize the higher level of spending.
Now, I understand that Reagan was talking about an ideal and the reality of politics and incentives make it hard to implement this ideal once in power. (In fact, Reagan himself had a hard time maintaining the purity of his vision during his eight years in office.) However, the Republicans have grown government above and beyond what can be blamed on the bad incentives they were given. Whether in or out of power, Republicans have overspent, over-regulated, refused to kill government programs (when Reagan talks about immortal government programs, the Ex-Im Bank and farm subsidies in particular come to mind), and supported programs that aren’t free market at all.
I provided a few examples a few months ago in a response to Kevin Williamson’s pessimism about the state of our country. My bigger point was that he shouldn’t despair about our ability to get the American people on board with our ideas, but that he may have reason to despair about the lack of commitment to our ideal of the current Republican party. I wrote:
One factor that still undermines Republican political fortunes is a healthy skepticism many Americans have about Republicans in power. Exhibit A: The Bush years. Republicans had more than a majority and plenty of room to change our future, but they did little to tackle bloated entitlement programs, put an end to cronyism, and restore a free society. As Needham says:
“The Bush years — No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, massive earmarking and food-stamp spending, and bank bailouts — serve as a vivid reminder that conservative policy suffers when the principal objective is to maintain political power.” . . .
Exhibit B: Republicans’ voting record since Obama’s election has continued to indicate an inconsistent commitment to free-market principles. They fight against the debt ceiling, but they also fight to get rid of sequestration. They fight against food stamps, but they vote for the farm subsidies. They complain about Solyndra, but don’t go all the way to end the program (which, by the way, began in the Bush years). They rail against cronyism, unless it serves special interests they like. They support spending cuts in theory, but refuse to publicly list the programs they would personally cut, no matter how small. They voted multiple times to repeal Obamacare, but now appear content with mere cosmetic fixes. Needham makes this point well, highlighting the survival of the Export-Import Bank as one example.
The excuses are always the same. When they aren’t in power, Republicans don’t want to rock the boat so they can win the majority. When they are in power, they don’t want to rock the boat for fear of capsizing. They then tend to rediscover the rhetoric of free-market when out of power, but Americans understand that more often than not promises about smaller government inevitably precede votes for ever bigger government.
Looking at the past few decades, we do seem to be lacking for vision abd principle. The Republican party may occasionally talk about the free market and small government, but often acts like the Democrats or little better – often confusing pro-business positions with pro-market ones, for instance.
A great communicator can indeed revive Reagan’s vision and excite the American people around the possibility of a better world. But it will take more than that if members of Congress continue to talk the talk but fail to walk the walk — here’s hoping a great leader can bring them around, too.