Fred Barnes, editor of The Weekly Standard and astute observer of the political scene, famously coined the phrase "big-government conservative," which -- like law-and-order anarchist or God-fearing atheist -- is a contradiction in terms.
Last week in the Standard, Barnes used quite a different term to describe Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence and other House members who are calling for budget cuts to offset the massive new federal spending envisioned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Barnes called them "small-government conservatives" -- and apparently didn't mean it as a compliment.
The term is a redundancy. Mike Pence is a conservative. Period.
He is also a loyal Republican, who as chairman of the House Republican Study Committee has consistently fought for the "small government" principles that won his party a majority.
Yet, in Barnes' analysis, this makes Pence the leader of a band of unrealistic dreamers, who are obstructing the more plausible aspirations of the White House and congressional Republican leaders. "Small government conservatives have revolted against President Bush and the Republican leadership in the Senate and House," he writes. "Their goal, with hurricane recovery costs soaring, is what it's always been: to hold down and restrain the growth of government. It is an impossible dream, or close to impossible."
Perhaps some Republicans in Washington have forgotten the "Contract With America," which gained them control of the House in the 1994 elections. It promised "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive and too easy with the public's money." It even vowed to "cut spending on welfare programs."
This bold call for smaller government gave the GOP so much political traction that the ever-opportunistic Democratic President Clinton -- who spent his first two years in office trying to nationalize the health care system -- soon started sounding like a Reagan Republican. "We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic government in Washington," Clinton said in his 1996 State of the Union. "The era of big government is over."
Before the presidential election that year, the GOP Congress wrestled a campaign-mode Clinton into signing a sweeping welfare reform bill, which was despised by the base of Clinton's own party and which sent responsibility for welfare programs back to the states, while limiting how long recipients could remain on the dole.
Nine years later, Republicans control both Congress and the White House. But the era of big government is returning with a vengeance.