Tea Party Should Emulate Clinton, Not Reagan

As the Tea Party migrates from the grass roots to the brier patch of the nation’s capital, sadly it will probably meet the same fate as other movements from “real America” who tried to plow new ground in Washington – in the ash heap of history.

The governmental juggernaut always seems to take minor hits and keep on thriving, no matter who opposes it. Make no mistake, it would be great and surprising if the Tea Party stopped or reversed the tide of expanding government. But it is unlikely to happen.

First of all, the Tea Party seems a little naïve, which will probably cause it to be eaten alive by the ruling bureaucrats and politicians of both parties in Washington. Even the name of the movement reflects ignorance that the Boston Tea Party was caused by the anger of colonial smugglers at the British government’s reduction of tariffs, not its hiking of such trade restrictions.

Other similar anti-government movements were exploited and then abandoned by unscrupulous politicians – President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the mid- to late-1990s. Gingrich is now regarded as a bombastic and washed-up “has been,” pushed aside by the glamorous ignoramuses Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Gingrich ended up veering off the course of reducing government – for which the public thought it voted in 1994 – to crash and burn carrying out a personal vendetta against President Bill Clinton for his largely irrelevant sexcapades. Yet initially, Gingrich actually tried to constrain government and helped push Clinton into being the most successful president in doing so since Harry S. Truman reduced abnormally high government spending after World War II. According to Mike Kimel and Michael E. Kanell in Presimetrics, a quantitative assessment of recent presidents, Clinton’s annualized reduction in federal spending as a portion of GDP of 2 percent dwarfed even renowned fiscal conservative Dwight Eisenhower’s second place of 0.5 percent. All other post-Truman presidents – including Ronald Reagan – increased annualized federal spending as a percentage of GDP.

As a small-government conservative, Ronald Reagan was nothing short of a fraud. He came to Washington determined to cut taxes, increase defense spending, and balance the budget. He paid only lip service to the last goal, which contradicted the first two, and to limiting government. Unfortunately, Reagan followed in the neoconservative tradition of William F. Buckley, who advocated zealously jousting with the Soviets during the Cold War and cutting government only if possible (difficult given the historically huge defense budgets needed to play global chess with the Red Menace). Reagan was never serious about cutting federal spending or abolishing federal agencies (not one was abolished during his tenure), thus rendering his tax cuts fake. If spending is not cut, taxes must be later raised (as Reagan did surreptitiously); money borrowed to fund deficits, thus crowding out the private borrowing needed to spur the economy and raising the federal debt (Reagan ranked first among post-Truman presidents in adding to the federal debt as a percentage of GDP); or money printed (the worst possible option, which Reagan was also the champion of doing among post-Truman presidents). Reagan also led all recent presidents in increasing the number of federal executive branch employees as a percentage of the population.

About half the Tea Party activists seem to be small-government libertarians who have been bamboozled into believing the huckster Reagan to be a small-government god. The other half seem to be neoconservatives, who have no problem with Reagan’s ending the military restraint of Presidents Ford and Carter and ramping back up to full jingoistic U.S. adventurism overseas – by attacking Libya, intervening in Lebanon, and invading Grenada to distract attention from the debacle in Lebanon. Also, Reagan gave Osama bin Laden inspiration by his actions in Lebanon, traded arms to terrorist-sponsoring Iran, helped the terrorist-sponsoring Saddam Hussein win the Iraq-Iran War, and created new anti-U.S. terrorist enemies by attacking Libya and aiding the Islamist mujahideen fighters in the then obscure and unimportant country of Afghanistan. So much for small government.

The neoconservative undercurrent in the Tea Party movement can be seen by the laudable move in the new Congress to cut $100 billion from the budget but unwisely exempt defense, homeland security, and veterans’ affairs.

In the modern age, with huge entitlement programs that spend automatically and entrenched interests defending them and even discretionary spending programs, absolute cuts in federals spending would require a superhuman president and Congress to achieve. Thus, the Tea Party should avoid getting rolled (as anti-government forces were by Reagan) or distracted (as they were by Gingrich) and should focus on the very pragmatic and reachable goal of cutting spending back to less than the growth of GDP. But taking defense, homeland security, and veterans’ spending off the table is not the way to do it. Shying away from shaving entitlement spending isn’t either. The most conservative post-Truman president on spending, Bill Clinton, didn’t take security spending off the chopping block. Strangely, perhaps Clinton is a better model for the Tea Party than the fraudulent Reagan.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.