President ignores core GOP values

August 19, 2004|By Stephen D. Hayes

WASHINGTON -- Politics is full of irony. This year it is that George W. Bush is campaigning on a carefully and narrowly selected set of cultural values while moving steadily away from a second set of values to which the Republican Party has traditionally adhered.

Consider the three old-line bedrock Republican values: fiscal discipline, limited government and individual accountability. GOP old-timers can remember the days when Republicans stood for and worked for spending restraint and balanced budgets. Ironically, the only balanced federal budgets in the past 30 years were produced under a Democratic president.

Ronald Reagan got caught up in the heady forecasts of his supply-side advisers, a severe revenue-reducing recession and a Congress bent on appropriating too much money. But at least he tried to limit government spending, vetoing 39 bills while in office.

In nearly four years in office, President Bush has not vetoed a single spending bill. This fiscal year, the federal deficit will top $400 billion, and in the last three years the national debt has mushroomed by more than $800 billion.

Yes, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have contributed to the red ink. But the large majority of the deficit is due to runaway domestic spending. Whatever happened to that fiscal discipline value?

With the exception of Arizona Sen. John McCain's perpetual carping about pork barrel spending, it just seems to have been vaporized out of the Republican lexicon.

There was also a time -- seems like a long time ago now -- when Republicans cared deeply about limited government and pushing more responsibility to the state and local levels. But, to cite one example, the president's No Child Left Behind program represents a concentration of power and control at the federal level in an area -- education -- that for 200 years has been largely left to the states.

The Patriot Act, elements of which are sound responses to the modern terrorist threat, nevertheless significantly extends the reach of the feds into our private lives. Likewise with marriage, the definition and control of which Mr. Bush wants to federalize.

Limited government? This Republican administration is moving the nation the other way with more federal employees, more federal spending and more intrusion into our privacy.

Finally, Republicans have historically placed a high value on the individual: supporting self-reliance, holding people responsible for their actions and extolling those who "work hard and play by the rules." This philosophy is reflected in the GOP's long-standing support of entrepreneurship, tough prosecution of corporate criminals and efforts to move the poor off welfare and into self-sustaining lifestyles.

Yet the Bush administration's immigration reform policy, which fortunately will not pass Congress anytime soon, embodies a diametrically opposed set of values: To the millions of illegal aliens now in the United States, Mr. Bush is, in effect, saying: "I know you broke our laws by illegally entering our country, avoided paying your fair share of taxes (thereby adding to the burden of our honest citizens) and have taken unfair advantage of our social services networks. But all is forgiven. No punishment. Welcome aboard!"

What was that again about working hard and playing by the rules? I guess sometimes when big voting blocs are at stake, politicians just have to rise above their own values.

And what of personal responsibility and accountability in the White House? Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here." John F. Kennedy took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Mr. Reagan shouldered the burden of the Marines killed in Lebanon and for the Iran-contra episode. But who today is responsible for the prewar intelligence failures and current mess in Iraq? Not Mr. Bush, apparently. In this administration, the proverbial buck is more like a hot potato.

The GOP now embraces millions of movement conservatives, neoconservatives, religious righters. But it also includes a huge, although relatively less active, group of traditional Republicans.

Republicans who, when they vote for president in November, may conclude that their old-fashioned, good government values -- such as fiscal discipline, limited government and individual responsibility -- are more important than the modern cultural values.

If they do, they just might disconnect from power a Republican administration that has itself become disconnected from its own Republican philosophical roots. And that would be the final irony.

Stephen D. Hayes was a political appointee in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Columnist Linda Chavez is on vacation.

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