[W]e have indeed witnessed various manifestations of an anti-government, populist Right over the past 60 years. But what has happened every time? The Goldwaterites turn into Nixonians. A Reagan disappoints the populist hard right. Anti-Washington sentiment puts in power a Republican Congress which then embarks upon a K Street Project. Every time the GOP has lost power in the past half-century, it has reverted to anti-statist rhetoric. And every time the party resumes power, that rhetoric proves empty. Is there any reason to think this latest iteration will be any different?
James invokes the economic collapse and the rise of the Tea Party movement to make his case that a future Republican government would remain principles, and largely shrugs off the problem of executive power. He does acknowledge that he’d like to take “a giant leap or two away from the cult of the presidency, and a number of hard-earned steps away from the politics of permanent crisis."
Taking those steps would certainly be a good idea, though I’m not at all sure how we can realistically get from here to there. The presidency has become a symbol of both failure and success in the popular imagination. Americans are over-stuffed on an unhealthy diet of presidential mania by the press. During the Bush years and now during the Obama presidency, the cult of the presidency has become cemented into our collective conscious.
My bet is that far from capitalizing on whatever small government rhetoric exists in the Tea Party movement, the result of a Republican resurgence will be a return to the same-old borrow and spend policies which have defined the Republican party for the past few decades, and especially during the profligate Bush years.
This is partly because of the value we place on the presidency – an office Americans now believe exists to 'get things done', requiring presidents to be far more pro-active than they probably ought to be, and encouraging all legislators to tell us only what we want to hear. It’s also due in part to the dearth of healthy debate on the right. This leads to certain bad habits, like stifling criticism of conservative leaders in both politics and the media.
In an era of intense party loyalty within the GOP, it’s unlikely that pundits or politicians will do much to speak out against another big-spending Republican president or Congress. Maybe some voices within the Tea Parties themselves will continue to speak out against big government – even in its Republican manifestation – but my cynical self suspects that these will quickly be shuffled off to the wings and fringes, far from polite society.