Could Kerry Be the Small-Government Candidate?

“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