Could Kerry Be the Small-Government Candidate?

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

“An
era of steadily bigger government is upon us,” writes Washington
Post editorial writer Sebastian Mallaby in a syndicated
column
. We’ve heard such claims before, usually from pundits
pining for politicians to insert themselves into every nook and
cranny of human life. But Mallaby cites strong evidence that the
political system has little to offer Americans who see government
as a vicious watchdog that needs to be kept on a short leash.

Mallaby
points to the performance of the incumbent president and his supposedly
small-government Republican colleagues in Congress. George W. Bush
“has expanded the Education Department … has created a vast new
prescription drug entitlement … has proposed a $1.5 billion government
program to promote marriage.”

Seconding
Mallaby, the Cato Institute’s Veronique de Rugy writes,
“[r]eal discretionary spending increases in fiscal years 2002, 2003,
and 2004 are three of the five biggest annual increases in the last
40 years.”

Even
putting aside the eye-popping cost of the occupation of Afghanistan
and Iraq, “discretionary nondefense spending has risen almost as
rapidly as defense spending in recent years.”

The
Bush administration weds the spending habits of a drunken sailor
with Big Brother’s law-and-order tactics. Under court order, the
FBI recently revealed that it used the Patriot Act’s controversial
Section 215 power, which allow the government to secretly seize
private information, “only weeks after Attorney General John Ashcroft
publicly declared that this power had never been used,” in the words
of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The
Economist, a British magazine otherwise sympathetic to post-9/11
increases in police power, editorialized
that “George Bush is heading in the wrong direction” with tactics
the publication calls even harsher than those implemented by apartheid-era
South Africa.

With
Republican George W. Bush positioned as champion of an expensive
and intrusive nanny state at home and military adventures abroad,
you might think Democrat John Kerry would distinguish himself as
a presidential hopeful by advocating a restrained foreign policy,
small government and civil liberties. Of course, Democrats are traditionally
free with taxpayer money, but Bush has already co-opted that position,
so why shouldn’t Kerry return the favor by adopting fiscal restraint
as a plank in his platform?

Instead,
the Democratic nominee has packed his pallid, undefined campaign
with a grab bag of programs and subsidies to rival those put forward
by the incumbent. Tallying up the cost of Kerry’s campaign promises,
the National Taxpayers Union Foundation says,
“Kerry has proposed ideas which would lead to an annual increase
of $276.9 billion in spending.”

And
Kerry is in a poor position to capitalize on the debate over the
Bush administration’s civil liberties violations; he voted for the
Patriot Act. Even now, Kerry’s campaign website says “[t]he Patriot
Act gave law enforcement some important new tools after 9/11″ and
advocates only minor modifications to the law, including “adequate
judicial oversight” for secret sneak-and-peek searches and somewhat
tighter rules for roving wiretaps.

Likewise,
Kerry supported the invasion of Iraq – although, with U.S. troops
now trying to extract themselves from that mess, he says he would
have handled the situation differently.

All
told, Sebastian Mallaby seems to be right about our future – by
default. The two major contenders for president and their parties
don’t offer competing political visions; they offer competing management
plans for massive and ever-growing government. To rally the troops,
the Bush and Kerry camps huff and puff over policy differences about
as significant as those that distinguish Coke and Pepsi, but in
the end voters have a choice of two brands of big-government cola
– small-government un-cola just isn’t on the menu.

According
to Mallaby, the major parties are only giving us variations on what
we want. “Politicians like big government; voters like big government.”
On this point it’s hard to know whether his analysis is on target.
Faced with two versions of the same product, voters have split
right down the middle
; we don’t know what they’d do if offered
something different.

As
far as advocates of small, peaceful, unobtrusive government are
concerned, the two major political parties have nothing much to
offer. And given the major parties’ dominance of the political system,
small-government types might as well sleep-in on Election Day.

As
distasteful as the choice presented by the major presidential contenders
is, it’s not entirely hopeless. While George W. Bush is unlikely
to change his tune – after all, he’s in the White House and has
already won a following as the Nero of American politics – there’s
still hope for Kerry. Kerry’s campaign has so far failed to catch
fire; he can probably be best characterized as the candidate less
likely to use dog collars on prisoners of war – or at least less
likely to allow the torture to be videotaped. As important as that
distinction is to prisoners of war, it’s not enough to win a national
election.

John
Kerry should go back to his party’s long-lost roots. With Bush well-established
on modern Democratic ground with bloated budgets and a social program
for every interest group, Kerry has an opportunity to return to
the Jeffersonian foundation of the Democratic Party and become the
champion of small government and personal liberty.

Kerry
may make an unconvincing convert to peace and freedom, but what
he’s doing now isn’t working. Even an opportunistic commitment to
a different philosophy of governing would offer Americans a choice,
and possibly win Kerry the White House. Then, just maybe, we wouldn’t
be doomed to a future of ever-bigger government.

June
29, 2004

J.D.
Tuccille [send him mail] is
an Arizona-based writer and political analyst.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare