Redefining Republican Conservatism

When Republican Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, federal government spending was $644 billion and the total federal government debt was $930 billion. By the time he left office, Reagan raised annual federal government spending rose by 82% to $1.2 trillion and public debt almost tripled to $2.7 trillion. The man Republicans hold up as their guiding light almost doubled the size of the federal government in his term and found a unique way to fund his spending increases and tax cuts – borrowed money.

His Republican successors picked up the torch and continued Reagan’s borrow and spend philosophy. In 2012, spending totaled $3.9 trillion. Over $2.2 trillion, or 69% of the $3.3 trillion increase since Reagan took office, occurred while Republicans controlled the presidency. For those of us who believe in limited government, Republicans are not the solution, they are the problem.

Table 1:Annual spending increases by administration. Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Tables 3.2 Federal Government Current Receipts and Expenditures, November 2013 and Table 1.1.5 Gross Domestic Product,, November 2013.

Table 1:Annual spending increases by administration. Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, Tables 3.2 Federal Government Current Receipts and Expenditures, November 2013 and Table 1.1.5 Gross Domestic Product,, November 2013.

Whether you look at real average year on year spending increases or look at their spending increases as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (a more accurate figure since it corrects for inflation), Republican presidents are as frugal as Satan is holy.

The modern Republican party is a study in Jekyll and Hyde contradictions. Dr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s mild-mannered literary creation, turned into the monstrous Edward Hyde at night. Exhibiting the same split personality, Republicans spend money like there is no tomorrow when they control the presidency and become insufferable skinflints when out of power.

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan (WI) is an example of the Republican split personality (and hypocrisy). Ryan was George W. Bush’s front man for getting congressional passage of the last Bush budgets. The Bush administration increased federal government annual spending from $1.94 trillion at the start of his term to over $3.3 trillion by the end. Following Barack Obama’s election, Ryan miraculously transformed into a “deficit hawk”.

Even though during Obama’s watch federal spending dropped from $3.92 trillion in 2010 to $3.89 trillion in 2012, Ryan claims, while discussing coming debt default negotiations, “We simply must get federal spending under control.” One wonders why he didn’t have this enthusiasm when his party controlled the White House? Even worse are the Republican priorities of an open checkbook for a war to overthrow a sovereign government that never was a threat to the U.S. and classifying food stamps and health care as threats to our government’s financial solvency.

This trend continues with today’s Tea Party Republicans. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s tax cuts are financed the good old-fashioned Republican way, with borrowed money that will increase the  state’s budget shortfall to $725 million from $545 million over the 2015 to 2017 budgetary period. Republicans rally their base by cutting Planned Parenthood and food stamp funding and add some grandstanding speeches about cutting government.  The problem is, these are relatively small budget items and talk is cheap. Conversely, for Frugal Ron style conservatives, smaller government means just that, smaller government that pays its bills and stays out of our way.

If there is still any doubt about the insincerity of Ryan and his Tea Party allies being interested in fiscal solvency, all their efforts are focused on ending Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act is one of the few things the neutral Congressional Budget Office estimates will LOWER the federal deficit.

While today’s big spending, deficit addicted Republicans are not fiscally conservative by anyone’s definition, they fail even more miserably at keeping government out of our lives. True conservatives live and die by the notion that if someone is doing something that doesn’t adversely affect you or anyone else, government has no right to interfere. This is laissez-faire and once was the Republican mantra.

Republicans waste no time on such silly notions. The 2012 Republican Party Platform calls for a Constitutional amendment that would outlaw any abortion taking place after conception.  This would make birth control pills illegal.  In states where they have power, Republicans restrict women’s rights to abortions, gay’s rights to live as married couples and immigrant’s rights to live here at all. If that isn’t enough, Republicans force their state approved laws down the throats of local government, making a mockery of traditional conservatism.

True conservatives have a healthy disregard for the power of government. Prohibition, the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty come to mind as failures of government to change human nature. Unfortunately, Republicans have no such caution.

A new definition of Republican conservatism

If Republicans aren’t for less government spending and less government in our lives, what do they stand for? Don’t look to the high-priced television talking heads for the answer. Simply look at the Merriam-Webster online dictionary where conservatism is defined as “a disposition in politics to preserve what is established. A political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.”

Oddly enough, this makes sense! Frugal Ron and today’s Republicans use two different definitions of conservatism. This is much more important than a disagreement over semantics and explains the GOP’s disengagement from so many voters. While many, if not most, Americans prefer a fiscally sound government that stays out of their way and look forward to the future, this is not the Republican cause. Republicans want to use the power of government to bring back the “traditional” America of a bygone era. This America is overwhelmingly white, at least superficially Christian, where women belong in the kitchen raising babies and people of color know their place.

This explains the Republican party’s focus on sending all illegal immigrants back to where they came from, their fixation on regulating women’s reproductive rights and cuts in education that deter upward mobility.

There are some Constitutional issues requiring separation of church and state, so prayer in public schools is not allowed. Today’s Republicans get around this by using vouchers to fund private church based schools. So what if the vouchers drain money away from public schools and raise property taxes? To Republicans, bringing back a more traditional Christian America trumps fiscal austerity.

The Merriam-Webster definition makes it easier to understand Wisconsin Governor Walker’s failed job creation agenda. Relaxed environmental regulations,  portraying the state as anti-union and an emphasis on lower taxes are policies designed to attract manufacturing jobs. Unfortunately for the tradition bound Republicans, the United States changed from being a manufacturing economy to higher paying information and service jobs decades ago.

New high-tech job creators flock to states like Minnesota where children get first-rate educations, high levels of government services are available and an obtrusive state government doesn’t try to regulate research. It is no wonder Walker and his Republican allies are languishing in a job creating morass and aren’t meeting their promise of creating 250,000 private sector jobs during his term.


Republicans jump for joy at the botched Obamacare rollout, believing Democratic missteps will vault them back into power. Unfortunately for them, voters quickly forget about these issues. Republicans need to forge an identity that people vote for, not just be available as a fallback when voters want something other than Democrats.

Today’s political battles are miscast as conservatives battling liberals. When we ignore the talk and focus on actions, today’s conservatives and traditional liberals have almost identical views on using the power of government to take away personal decision-making for citizens and for ignoring government fiscal frugality.

The real political battles are between progressives who want to move forward and conservatives committed to “A political philosophy based on tradition and social stability…”

Unfortunately, in spite of their best efforts, the proportion of older white people who vote Republican is declining. The key for Republicans is to reincarnate themselves into the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt that was a leader in bringing change. This means jettisoning those who are nostalgic for a bygone era that wasn’t that great in the first place. It means making fiscal austerity more than an empty campaign slogan when they are in power and a focus when they are out of power.

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