Running for president on a third-party ticket in 1968, George Wallace famously
claimed that there wasn't "a dime's worth of difference" between the Republican
and Democratic nominees. Would anyone tuning in this year's crop of candidates
say the same thing?
Consider some recent sound bites:
"You said we would fight for every job! You said that we would fight to get health
care for all Americans! You said we'd fight to secure our border! You said we'd
fight for us to be able to get lower taxes for middle-income Americans!"
"Guess what they're doing in Washington: They're worrying, because they realize, the
lobbyists and the politicians realize, that America now understands that Washington
is broken. And we're going to do something about it."
"Washington told us that they'd get us better health care and better education
but they haven't. Washington told us they'd get us a tax break for the middle-income
Americans but they haven't."
You don't have to be a political junkie to recognize those as specimens of
populist Democratic boilerplate, right? The only challenge is to match each
quotation to the Democratic candidate who said it.
Except that no Democrat uttered those words. The three big-government
platitudes above were taken from Republican Mitt Romney's Michigan primary
victory speech on Tuesday.
No one is surprised when Dennis Kucinich or John Edwards insists that it's the
federal government's responsibility to "get us better health care and better
education." Coming from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the claim that the
Bush tax cuts shortchanged middle-income Americans is all too familiar. But
from a Republican like Romney, who casts himself as the truest, most
Reaganesque conservative in the GOP field?
Romney's message used to be one of unabashed small-government conservatism:
"Government is simply too big. State government is too big. The federal
government is too big. It's spending too much." Those words still appear on his
website, but there was nothing like them in his remarks last week. He told his
supporters that Washington is broken and needs to be fixed which is
decidedly not the same as saying it needs to be shrunk. Romney used to boast of
the hundreds of spending line-items he vetoed as Massachusetts governor; "I
like vetoes," he told audiences. But these days he's singing from a different
To be sure, Romney is hardly the only Republican candidate to distance himself
from the gospel of less-intrusive, less-expensive government. Certainly no one
would confuse Mike Huckabee who as Arkansas' governor raised taxes, hiked
spending, and expanded state regulation with Barry Goldwater, the original
"Mr. Conservative." And the man who succeeded Goldwater in the Senate, John
McCain, is guilty of such big-government abominations as the McCain-Feingold
campaign finance law and opposing the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.
But it is Romney whose pitch has shifted the most as he (again) seems to be
reinventing himself, this time as a government planner with more faith in the
power of top-down federal intervention than in the innovations and efficiencies
of the free market.
In Detroit last week, Romney vowed to resurrect the moribund US auto industry -
which has been declining for decades with massive corporate welfare and
other government largesse. He derided as "baloney" McCain's blunt reality check
that many auto manufacturing jobs are gone for good. He condemned "the absence
of a federal policy designed to strengthen the US automotive sector," sounding
for all the world as if he just stepped out of some 1970s statist time warp. He
promised "a fivefold increase from $4 billion to $20 billion in our
national investment in energy research, fuel technology, materials science, and
automotive technology." He called for "a Manhattan-style project, an
Apollo-style project" to achieve that ever-beckoning chimera, energy
Whatever else it might be, this is not fiscal conservatism.
"If I'm president of this country, I will roll up my sleeves in the first 100
days I'm in office, and I will personally bring together industry, labor,
congressional, and state leaders, and together we will develop a plan to
rebuild America's automotive leadership," Romney now says. "Washington should
not be a benefactor, but it can and must be a partner."
It must? That sure wasn't the Gipper's view.
"What is euphemistically called government-corporate 'partnership' is just
government coercion, political favoritism, collectivist industrial policy, and
old-fashioned federal boondoggles nicely wrapped up in a bright-colored
ribbon," President Reagan declared emphatically in 1988. "It doesn't work." Far
more effective, he had learned, was when Washington "cut taxes, spending, and
regulation, and got government out of the way and let free people create new
jobs and businesses."
Not a dime's worth of difference between the parties? Well, no, I wouldn't go
that far. But it would be nice if Republicans who claim to be Reaganesque
conservatives occasionally paused to ask themselves: What would Reagan say?