David Freddoso: Last GOP Congress wasn't exactly a Tea Party 

During the past 19 months, Democrats have successfully reminded voters of why they dislike Democrats. Now they hope to remind them over the next three months that they dislike Republicans, too.

George W. Bush is as good a bogeyman as you can find, and it’s the one President Obama chose earlier this week when he criticized Republicans: “They don’t have a single idea that is different from George Bush’s.”

Obama was hamming it up for a partisan crowd, but his backward-looking rhetoric raises a legitimate question. Have Republicans really changed since the days of Bush – or better, since the voters took away their congressional majorities in 2006?

Polls show that voters today are especially worried about the growth of government. Republicans are likely to capitalize on that politically, but can they govern in a way that meets the voters’ concerns?

The last Republican Congress wasn’t exactly a Tea Party. Just look back to the six years when George W. Bush was president and enjoyed a GOP majority in Congress. In fiscal 2001, President Clinton’s last budget year, federal outlays were $1.79 trillion. In fiscal 2007, the last budget year for which the GOP Congress was responsible, the federal government spent $2.78 trillion. That’s 55 percent nominal growth in just six years, far outpacing inflation, economic growth, and national need.

During those six years of total Republican control, annual spending as a share of GDP increased from 18.5 to 20.2 percent, according to President Bush’s budget office. Congress also added a cumulative $1.76 trillion (in 2008 dollars) to the national debt by running 12-figure deficits every single year.

Some Republicans still argue that this wasn’t so bad. After all, there was a terrorist attack and a war. And Obama and the Democratic Congress have added $1.5 trillion to the debt in just one fiscal year.

And perhaps that’s technically true, but this argument reeks of the same kinds of excuses and finger-pointing in which Obama now engages. It sets the bar so low that you don’t notice it before tripping over it.

It is heartening that the Republicans’ House leader, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, isn’t one of those making this argument. “There is no question that Republicans lost our way on spending,” he told me by e-mail this week.

Boehner points to Republicans’ unity against Obamacare and the stimulus, and the thrifty budget that Republicans proposed. His second-in-command, Eric Cantor of Virginia, pointed me toward his YouCut program, by which Republicans have engaged the public and brought $120 billion in popular spending cuts to the House floor.

These are encouraging signs for voters. There are discouraging ones, too.

Very few GOP House members -- the Washington Post says it's only 13 -- are backing Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s oft-discussed “Roadmap for America’s Future,” the only serious plan anyone has offered to prevent the United States from being crushed under the weight of outdated entitlement programs. Boehner praises it as “a bold vision of conservative reform,” but it won't be part of the agenda this fall. Republicans know it carries great political risk because it touches two radioactive issues: Social Security and Medicare.

And the criticism that Republicans overspent during their day only tells half the story of their shortcomings. It’s not just what the old Republican majority did, but also what it didn’t do.

Republicans didn’t eliminate major government programs, scale back federal intrusion into local issues, tackle the long-term entitlement problem, or apply market-based reforms to health care that might have obviated demand for Obamacare.

Cantor told me that the party has a new attitude. “I think clearly this is not your Republican Party of ’06 or ’08,” he said. And Republicans have probably changed enough that they can win this election -- the current polls reflect that -- but it's only after they win that they'll have a chance to prove him right.

David Freddoso is The Examiner's online opinion editor. He can be reached at dfreddoso@dcexaminer.com.

About The Author

David Freddoso

Bio:
David Freddoso came to the Washington Examiner in June 2009, after serving for nearly two years as a Capitol Hill-based staff reporter for National Review Online. Before writing his New York Times bestselling book, The Case Against Barack Obama, he spent three years assisting Robert Novak, the legendary Washington... more
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