The Chieftains and the Church

An intellectual audit of the Democrats and the Republicans

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the rivalry between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Ever since 1854, when the implosion of the Whigs paved the way for the birth of the Republican Party (twenty-six years after the emergence of the Democrats), this rivalry has dominated and even defined American politics. Although the reign of these two parties has endured for well over half the life of our republic, it would be a mistake to assume that either party has remained consistent—or even recognizable.

Quick—which party stands for small government, states' rights, and laissez-faire economics? Which favors an activist federal government, public infrastructure projects, and expanded civil rights? Today the answers would be Republican and Democratic, respectively. Yet each party was founded on precisely the principles now associated with the other. And consider that the South, originally a stronghold of the Democrats, is now the anchor of the Republicans. But the most dramatic inversion in partisan identity is this: the Republicans in recent years have emerged as revolutionaries, while the Democrats have relegated themselves to defending tradition and the status quo.

The 150th anniversary of their rivalry provides an occasion for an intellectual audit of these two ever changing parties.

The Party of the Church

Let's begin with the Republicans, who under President George W. Bush have become the party of big ideas. There is no denying the range and boldness of their initiatives, from privatizing Social Security to institutionalizing a doctrine of preventive warfare; from eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends to pulling out of numerous international treaties; from encouraging school choice to remaking the Middle East. This boldness is in itself an anomaly for a party that in past decades has tended to revere inherited norms and institutions, but it is just one of the signs that this is not the Republican Party of George W.'s father. Indeed, its identity seems to have no clear lineage.

The modern Republican tradition is usually thought to have originated with the firebrand rhetoric of Barry Goldwater, which ultimately paved the way for the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan. The Reagan revolution was built on three unifying principles: anti-communism, social conservatism, and limited government. The sudden end of the Cold War left the Republicans with only two of these principles around which to organize. But most Americans let it be known that they were not particularly interested in fighting domestic culture wars, much less in turning back the clock on newfound personal freedoms. The Republican Party's anti-government agenda, meanwhile, culminated in the Gingrich revolution of 1994, which sought to downsize all sorts of federal programs. To Newt Gingrich's surprise, the majority of Americans didn't really want a dramatic cutback in government programs and perceived his agenda as extremist.

George W. Bush is the first Republican President to recognize that the constituency for the Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich anti-government crusade is dwindling—inspiring him to try to reposition his party. Although Bush calls his new and improved governing philosophy "compassionate conservatism," a more accurate description might be "big-spending conservatism."

Unlike Reagan, who shrank nondefense spending considerably and vetoed a number of spending bills in his first three years, Bush has so far increased total federal spending by a dizzying 20.4 percent and has yet to veto a single spending bill. The contrast is all the more dramatic when Bush is compared with Bill Clinton, who declared the end of big government, who in his first three years increased total government spending by only 3.5 percent, and who actually reduced discretionary spending by 8.8 percent. Clinton's Republican successor is quietly reversing course with a vengeance, leading the libertarian Cato Institute to accuse Bush of "governing like a Frenchman."

The President's reason for engineering this reversal, apparently, is to overcome the budgetary obstacles to parts of his agenda. For example, he seeks to privatize public services and enhance individual choice—school choice, retirement choice (through private Social Security accounts), and medical choice (through private health insurance instead of government-run programs). But moving from one-size-fits-all government programs to more-flexible privatized ones may require more public outlay, not less, than simply preserving the status quo. As the price for bringing competition into Medicare, for instance, Bush enacted a prescription-drug benefit that represents the largest expansion in entitlements since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. And moving to private Social Security accounts would entail funding two entirely separate systems during the transition period.

Fighting the war on terrorism, too, is expensive. But rather than adjusting his agenda accordingly, Bush has pushed through three huge tax cuts in as many years. In the process he has fatally undermined the coherence of his overall program. Fusing vast new spending with deep tax cuts, Bush is locking into place long-term structural deficits whose costs to both our nation and the Republican Party would be difficult to overstate.

To understand why the Republican majority in Congress is playing along with the President, it helps to think of today's Republican Party as a theocracy; call it the Party of the Church. Under Bush the party is guided by a core ideology that it pursues with a near religious fervor, regardless of countervailing facts, changing circumstances, or even opposition among the conservative ranks. The President and his inner circle not only set the canon but demand—and usually get—strict compliance from Republican legislators in both houses of Congress. The two central tenets of Bush's orthodoxy are tax cuts and regime change in Iraq. He has staked the success of his presidency on them.

Presented by

Ted Halstead is the founding president and CEO of the New America Foundation.

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