Kristol on small-government talk

KRISTOL ON SMALL-GOVERNMENT TALK…. Bill Kristol’s contract with the New York Times must be on the verge of running out, because his column today isn’t completely ridiculous. In fact, it emphasizes a fairly obvious point that sometimes goes overlooked.

As Kristol sees it, Barack Obama is poised to take office and respond to the worsening financial crisis with an ambitious rescue plan. Kristol encourages conservatives to oppose the “supersized helping of big-government liberalism.” Whatever.

But Kristol goes on to note that how the right approaches their opposition matters, and argues that it’s a little late in the game for Republicans to go “charging into battle against Obama under the banner of ‘small-government conservatism.'”

It turns out, in the real world of Republican governance, that there aren’t a whole lot of small-government Republicans.

Five Republicans have won the presidency since 1932: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes. Only Reagan was even close to being a small-government conservative. And he campaigned in 1980 more as a tax-cutter and national-defense-builder-upper, and less as a small-government enthusiast in the mold of the man he had supported — and who had lost — in 1964, Barry Goldwater. And Reagan’s record as governor and president wasn’t a particularly government-slashing one.

Even the G.O.P.’s 1994 Contract With America made only vague promises to eliminate the budget deficit, and proposed no specific cuts in government programs. It focused far more on crime, taxes, welfare reform and government reform. Indeed, the “Republican Revolution” of 1995 imploded primarily because of the Republican Congress’s one major small-government-type initiative — the attempt to “cut” (i.e., restrain the growth of) Medicare. George W. Bush seemed to learn the lesson. Prior to his re-election, he proposed and signed into law popular (and, it turned out, successful) legislation, opposed by small-government conservatives, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

So talk of small government may be music to conservative ears, but it’s not to the public as a whole.

That is, oddly enough, largely true. Republican rhetoric notwithstanding, Republican policy makers tend to increase spending and the size of the government. They do this, of course, to win elections.

So, what does Kristol recommend if knee-jerk opposition to “big” government won’t work? That’s where Kristol sounds more like Kristol — he encourages conservatives to help Detroit, not with a bailout package, but by “relieving auto makers of burdensome regulations.” He’d like to see Republicans support a stimulus plan, not with public works projects, but through more defense spending.

His larger point is a fair one, but he is, after all, Bill Kristol.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.