Marco Rubio's Imaginary Republican Party Is Fiscally Conservative

Against substantial evidence, he argues the GOP is the home for people who care about constitutionalism and limited government.

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Speaking on Saturday at a dinner for South Carolina Republicans, Florida Senator Marco Rubio urged his fellow partisans to be team players. "As frustrated as sometimes we may get with the leadership of our own party on one issue or another, the logical home of the limited government, constitutional republican principles of our nation is the Republican Party. The logical home for the defense of the free-enterprise system is the Republican Party," he told them. "It is the only organization in modern American politics that is still capable at this moment of driving forward these concepts and these principles that are so important for our future and require us to unite behind it with a sense of purpose and focus unlike any we have had in our lifetimes."

I wish it were true. But it's illogical to think that Republicans will govern as limited-government constitutionalists if they return to power. Neither of the two major parties will pursue that agenda. The Democrats are perpetually looking to expand and perfect the New Deal. The GOP alternates between railing against entitlements when out of power and expanding them once a president from the party is running things. And both parties have used the War on Terrorism to abandon any pretense of an executive branch limited by the Constitution. The choices they're offering in the presidential contest are as depressing. Voters can cast their ballot for an incumbent who has taken many positions he once described as abhorrent, or a challenger who describes as abhorrent many of the positions he once took himself.

Rep. Paul Ryan has taken the lead in offering a Republican alternative to President Obama's spending proposals. His budget is the outer limit of what Republicans dare to propose, which is to say, it's wildly unrealistic to imagine it passing unaltered. Even so, Ryan refuses to specify which tax deductions it would eliminate, though they're vital to his deficit projections; his budget increases military spending, a category of expenditure that causes many Republicans to stop caring about deficits; and the budget's Medicare savings don't even start accruing for another 10 years.

As Jim Manzi said of the budget deficit in his recently published book Uncontrolled:

Plans to deal with this problem by simply asserting that we will choose to control spending in the future by, for example, distributing vouchers for health care with declining aggregate value as a percentage of GDP as compared to current expectations (a conservative idea), or that we will have a government agency that will make health-care availability decisions that will achieve the same aggregate spending path (a liberal idea), are mostly beside the point. These are proposals for ice cream sundaes for me today, and a strict diet for somebody else tomorrow.

There's more. Ryan's budget doesn't touch Social Security at all. You'll frequently hear fiscal conservatives rail against President Bush's massive expansion of Medicare. Is there any prospect of the GOP repealing it? After insisting on a deficit-reduction deal or automatic sending cuts as a condition of raising the debt ceiling, the GOP super-committee members failed to reach a deal with their Democratic analogues. House Republicans subsequently voted to undo the military-spending reductions. And the GOP presidential candidates? Asked if they would support a deficit-reduction deal where spending cuts exceeded tax increases by a factor of 10 -- that is to say, a factor much larger than anything remotely likely to pass -- they all said they'd refuse.

Uncomfortable as it may be for Republican partisans to admit, Ronald Reagan expanded the deficit; the recent Republican president most concerned about it, George H.W. Bush, was thrown out of office partly because he cared more about balanced budgets than about taxes; and George W. Bush spent wildly. Recent history would suggest a Republican House and a Democratic president are the best mix for balanced budgets, though you can hardly extrapolate from one example. What can be said with confidence is that when given power, Republicans tend to care more about military spending and tax cuts than deficits. Fiscal conservatives, beware.

As for constitutional government, the GOP, even more than the almost-as-bad Democrats, are the party of indefinite detention, the Patriot Act, warrantless spying, torture, and John Yoo-style con law, which is to say, the judgment that Madison's checks and balances are dangerous in an age of terror. Republicans are for federalism, except when gay marriage or marijuana is implicated. And their neoconservative faction is willing to expand budget deficits without apparent limit if it means they can insert the American military in Syria or Iran or whatever is next on their list. Rubio himself backed an amendment that would permit War on Terror detainees to be held indefinitely even after they received a trial and were found innocent in court. He voted against an amendment that would have prohibited the indefinite detention without trial of American citizens. He's the kind of "constitutionalist" that doesn't give a damn about the fourth, fifth, and sixth amendments, so long as there's a religious extremist somewhere who wants to do us harm.

There are differences between the Republicans and Democrats. I don't know myself whether I think Obama or Romney would be a better president. I don't begrudge anyone voting for the challenger. But the notion that Romney will govern as a limited government constitutionalist is laughable fantasy, as many conservative Republicans pointed out themselves before he won the GOP nomination. The Tea Party has been responsible for a few consistent advocates of limited government, like Senator Rand Paul. What Rubio, who is urging party loyalty, doesn't seem to understand is that the Tea Party only managed to achieve its modest gains by refusing blind loyalty to the GOP. The notion that Republicans are required to unite because their the only plausible vehicle for limited government, rather than because they're likely to deliver, is exactly the mindset that got the country eight years of George W. Bush and six years of conservative Bush apologists. Rubio is an establishment opportunist, and the sooner Tea Partiers learn to mistrust him the less likely they are to feel hurt and surprised when he betrays them.