The Republican field has just been joined by Newt Gingrich, the ringleader of the 1994 “Republican Revolution.” After forty years in the minority, the GOP won the House and Senate that year in November and took over the reins the following January. Many expected a major shift toward smaller government.
The Contract with America—the Republicans’ literature offering hope and change to the American people—was filled with reforms supposedly aimed at limiting the power of Washington, but much of it had to do with expanding government to crack down on crime or uphold family values. Unsurprisingly, the Republicans had more success passing legislation that made government more powerful than they did at cutting back government’s intrusion into our personal and economic lives.
Six out of eight years that Bill Clinton was president he had a Republican Congress to deal with. Both liberals and conservatives have a mixed recollection of these years. Democrats and Republicans both take credit for the relative fiscal restraint at the time, yet for some reason conservatives have often conjured up images of the Clinton years as though they were a period of particularly corrupt governance, and Democrats complain of the atmosphere of “deregulation” that permeated the era, even though their man in the White House signed off on most of it.
One thing is for certain: the Republican Congress in the 1990s did not cut back government overall. To the contrary, in the 1990s the last federal budget passed by the Republicans was hundreds of billions higher than the last one passed by the Democratic Congress. In some areas, like farm subsidies, spending went up substantially.
This is all relevant again because Newt personifies the mainstream modern Republican Party at its most “radical”—full of talk about slashing back government but often more oriented toward compromise on domestic issues and agitation for more militarism and police powers. Indeed, even the rhetoric of the Republican Party has only gotten more mild on the question of cutting government.
Back in the 1960s, Republicans talked about cutting back the New Deal and then resisting LBJ’s Great Society. In the 1970s, they talked about opposing the government expansions of Carter and vowed to get rid of the newly created Departments of Energy and Education. In the 1980s they were in power, yet still somehow managed to make the Democrats in Congress out to be the main proponents of big government—they promised that one day they would scrap much of the modern entitlement state and keep taxes in check. In the 1990s, they said Washington must be pushed out of our local schools and communities, that the federal government was destroying business and family and should even, given the end of the Cold war, stop intervening so much abroad. As late as 2000, Republicans talked about eventually abolishing the welfare state and letting the states handle education and charity. In the 2000s, the small-government rhetoric was mostly gone, as 9/11 and the George W. Bush administration encouraged Republicans to talk mostly about all the things government had to do to protect us from terrorists: Surveillance, secret prisons, warrantless searches, indefinite war—these were the rallying cries of the Republicans up until Obama came to power, at which point they started waxing eloquent once again about the need to return to Jeffersonian principles.
But with Newt entering the fray, we are reminded of how disingenuous these politicians can be, as well as how much they have slid even in their rhetorical defense of liberty. At his very best, Newt will sound like he did in 1994. But even in his particular case, the rhetoric has been undercut by years of cheering for Bush’s leviathan state.
One example illustrates how fully Gingrich has become a shill for the total state.
In 1982, Newt Gingrich wrote to the Journal of the American Medical Association in defense of medical marijuana. He noted that “Federal law. . . continues to define marijuana as a drug ‘with no accepted medical use,’ and federal agencies continue to prohibit physician-patient access to marijuana. This outdated federal prohibition is corrupting the intent of the state laws and depriving thousands of glaucoma and cancer patients of the medical care promised them by their state legislatures.”
Almost 30 years later, is he still asking for a liberalization of federal marijuana law? Quite the reverse. He strongly suggests we need to look at such countries as Singapore for our inspiration on drug policy and does not flinch when it is pointed out that that nation executes drug dealers and issues mandatory drug tests to the general population. These are totalitarian proposals, and Gingrich seems to endorse them emphatically.
But even on more run-of-the-mill Republican issues, Newt has taken a turn for the worse. He is essentially an advocate of expansive Republican government, not even manifesting the same small-government enthusiasm of past Republican revolutionaries. At the very best, he is promising to bring the GOP back to where it was in 1994: Protesting a big-government first-term Democratic president, but most likely ensuring that the future will be no freer or more financially stable than the present. While two Republican candidates—Ron Paul and Gary Johnson—actually suggest significant and immediate cuts in most areas of the federal government, Newt is a throwback to vague and false promises from the GOP. Up against the rest of the statists in the GOP contest, Newt represents more of the same, with just enough 1990s retro thrown in to trick those who think the Republican Revolution of the Clinton era was any sort of success in shrinking government.
Earlier, polls taken of Tea Party conservatives showed them to be very excited about supporting Newt Gingrich for president. Let us hope they have raised their sights higher than that since then.