In January 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton declared the era of big government over. Eleven years later, government is larger than it ever has been: The federal budget for 2007 is $2.8 trillion, the highest in history; one in six Americans relies on government assistance; we spend $586.5 billion on Social Security, $372.3 billion on Medicare, $268.5 billion on health care, and $93 billion on education, training, employment and social services. If you laid the dollar bills composing the federal budget end to end, the chain of cash would circle the equator approximately 11,000 times -- or reach from Earth to the sun three times over. To put our budget in historical perspective, the federal government spends approximately $9,300 per person in the United States; a century ago, the federal government spent just over $7 per person.
Clinton, like Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar," was truly coming not to bury big government, but to praise it. And Republicans are in on the act. President Ronald Reagan made Big Government the butt of his jokes. "Government," he said, "is like a baby: an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other."
But today's Republican Party has embraced the "strong government" model of Washington Post columnist George F. Will, who wrote: "Today 'strong government conservatism' -- 'strong' is not synonymous with 'big' -- is the only conservatism palatable to a public that expects government to assuage three of life's largest fears: illness, old age and educational deficits that prevent social mobility. Some conservatives believe government strength is inherently inimical to conservative aspirations. This belief mistakenly assumes that all government action is merely coercive, hence a subtraction from freedom. But government can act strongly to make itself less controlling and intrusive, enacting laws that offer opportunities and incentives for individuals to become more self-sufficient."
But is big government a winning strategy for Republicans? Will suggests it is the only winning strategy; that if conservatives tinker with the welfare state, the third rail of American politics, they die electorally. In his view, conservatism must become a program pushing efficient administration of government.
Of course, this means Republicans and Democrats will campaign on the same grounds. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's pledge to rely on "smart government" is virtually indistinguishable from Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain's promise to provide Americans with "a government they can believe in," that is "reasonably efficient."
Republicans cannot win consistently if they abandon principled opposition to big government. If both Democrats and Republicans campaign on big-government grounds, Democrats will win -- they can stand on their historical commitments to big government and class warfare. Too many Americans believe economics is a zero sum game: The poor are poor, in this view, because the rich are rich. Democrats capitalize on this misconception by pandering to the poor and taxing the rich.
It is a tough sell. It will require an articulate politician, and a courageous one -- it is always easier to pander than to speak the truth. But if Republicans wish to win, they must stand for something beyond liberalism-lite.