Over the past two decades, since the 1992 presidential election, Republican politics has followed a cycle. It goes like this:
Stage One: A Democrat wins the presidency and expands the size of government.
Stage Two: Republicans mobilize to prevent big government from destroying the American way of life.
Stage Three: Republicans take Congress.
Stage Four: Congressional Republicans battle the Democratic president over the size of government. They cut spending and reduce the deficit, but in the process become wildly unpopular.
Stage Five: The Democratic president uses the unpopularity of the Republican Congress to help win reelection.
Stage Six: Republican presidential candidates ditch their assault on big government and become compassionate conservatives.
We’re now back at Stage Six.
In the late 1990s, after Bill Clinton campaigned for reelection against the Gingrich Congress’s assault on government spending, George W. Bush decided that he too would make congressional Republicans his foil. In September 1999, when GOP budget hawks tried to cut the earned-income tax credit, the Texas governor declared, “I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor.”
Now the same pattern is repeating itself. In 2012, Mitt Romney boasted that he was “severely conservative.” He chose Paul Ryan as his running mate in large measure to mobilize Republicans who loved Ryan’s assault on the welfare state. But Romney and Ryan lost in part because Barack Obama, like Clinton before him, scared Americans about the GOP’s assault on government. Moreover, as in the late 1990s, the budget deficit is going down.