At the Fox News/Google Republican presidential debate in Orlando on Thursday, candidates argued with one another more frequently than at any of the previous debates, but they all shared one theme: that the federal government is the enemy. To a degree that has been unmatched in recent years, serious contenders for a major party nomination expressed contempt for the very government they seek to lead. You would have to go back to Barry Goldwater in 1964 and his segregationist allies to find a campaign when “states’ rights” were so in vogue.
The Republican Party seems to have taken a decisive turn against the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush. Bush’s signature domestic policy, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), was repeatedly singled out for abuse by candidates who were virtually unanimous in their agreement that the federal government has no role to play in educating children.
Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), the Goldwater conservative, demanded that we “get the federal government out of educating our kids,” and suggested that the federal government abandon enforcing NCLB.
Paul is only slightly more extreme than his opponents on the subject. Mitt Romney was the only candidate to embrace the education reform agenda that President Obama has continued from the Bush administration, which Rick Perry derided as “not conservative.” Perry declared that “the federal government has no business telling states how to educate our children.” So the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 1975 federal law requiring schools to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities, violates Perry’s principle. What would happen to disabled children in Rick Perry’s America? Romney himself echoed the idea that we should remove the federal government from the education sphere. Representative Michele Bachmann argued for eliminating the Department of Education, saying, “I would pass the mother of all repeal bills on education.” Bachmann, as she proudly noted, got into politics to combat the godlessness her foster children were exposed to in public schools. She neglected to mention that she helped found a charter school that lost its charter due to inappropriate religiosity.
Some of the candidates seemed not to understand exactly what they were saying. On education, Herman Cain said, “For federal programs where there are strings attached, cut the strings.” Taken literally, it sounds like he’s invoking the strings metaphor to say that federal money for education should flow to the states without any performance requirements being placed on them. That sounds to me like tax-and-spend liberalism rather than hard-headed conservatism. So perhaps Cain wants to cut federal education spending and just said something incomprehensible. Then again, as the recent Republican resistance to requiring accountability from for-profit colleges that collect federal funding demonstrates, modern Republicans aren’t really fiscally conservative at all. They would rather see the government hand out money without conditions than use the coercive power of the state to get good value for our hard-earned tax dollars.
When pure ideology wasn’t sufficient to make their point, the Republican candidates just made things up. Cain declared, falsely, that under the Affordable Care Act he would have been unable to obtain timely treatment for his cancer because “a bureaucrat” would have prevented him from getting this treatment. Romney claimed that “Obamacare intends to put someone between you and your physician.” It’s not clear who is this villain haunting the imaginations of Romney and Cain, but as anyone who has ever had a claim denied by their health insurance company can tell you, there’s already someone between you and your physician.