Commentary: GOP keeps avoiding its own fiscal 'principles'
How big should government be? The answer is: As big as it has to be -- and for small-government types, no bigger than it has to be.
The whole debate about the proper size of government is a blind alley leading into a dead end. Government must grow at times of war or collapsing economy. It grows when there are lots of schoolchildren, elderly people or natural disasters. Government provides necessities that the private sector can't. We can argue over what constitutes a necessity.
There was no joy in President Obama's discussion Tuesday night of the expensive economic-recovery plan. He told Congress that he asked for it, "not because I believe in bigger government -- I don't." It was because "a failure to act would have worsened our long-term deficit by assuring weak economic growth for years."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's Republican response to the speech showed a stunning disconnect from reality. First he called for a pile of new tax cuts, then warned that Democrats would "saddle future generations with debt."
Future generations are saddled with debt precisely because of reckless Republican tax cuts -- and spending. Obama repeated his vow to cut the deficit in half, once the crisis has passed. And he spoke in real-world specifics of tax loopholes to be ended and higher levies on the richest 2 percent.
Well, what about spending? There are fiscally righteous Republicans who fervently believe in small government and have the courage to vote against popular programs. They are but a handful. George W. Bush, working with a Republican Congress, embarked on the biggest spending spree since Lyndon Johnson, even excluding money allocated to defense and homeland security.
A current Republican talking point, repeated by Jindal, holds that "our party got away from its principles." Sadly, the party gets away from its principles most every time it's in power.
Bush wasn't a special case. Under Ronald Reagan, the U.S. government consumed the highest percentage of gross domestic product in American history, except for during World War II.
In his first address before Congress, in 1981, Reagan made shocked reference to the nearly $1 trillion in debt his administration had inherited. He called the number "incomprehensible." But Reagan's rhetoric had no bearing on subsequent policy. By the time he left office, the national debt had more than doubled, to over $2 trillion.
The national debt almost doubled under George W. Bush, from just under $6 trillion to nearly $10 trillion.
The one fiscally honest Republican president in recent decades was the much-maligned George H.W. Bush. Deciding that the time had come for America to start paying its bills, the elder Bush broke his "no new taxes" pledge. For that gutsy move, his party's tax-a-phobes reviled him.
Their barbs multiplied for Bush's successor, Democrat Bill Clinton, who backed higher taxes for some upper-income Americans. That helped create budget surpluses -- a fiscal Eden from which America was ejected soon after.
A recent New York Times-CBS News poll asked Americans whether it's more important for Republicans to stick to GOP policies or work with Obama and the Democrats. Only 17 percent preferred that Republicans stick to their policies. That's not much of a thumbs-up for the Republican way.
Nobody likes the deficits being run up. Everybody gripes about some of the ways the money's being spent. But at the moment, only government can pull us out of the economic swamp.
If Obama succeeds in cutting the deficit in half, he will have presided over a very big government followed by a much shrunken one. Both versions will have been right for their times. Clearly, there's no "one-size-fits-all" circumstances for government.