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.
Candidates showed their distaste for government in far broader ways throughout the night. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson boasted that he had vetoed the most bills of any governor in the country, as if all legislation is automatically bad. The applauding audience seemed to agree.
Romney proudly noted twice that he had spent his career in business rather than in government or politics. In fact, he talked about making money at a private equity firm the way candidates used to discuss military service. “I love this country, I worked in the private sector,” said Romney, as if the two facts were linked. “I only spent four years in office,” Romney added. Apparently, Romney thinks his short record of public service, which a normal electorate might see as a liability, is an asset in the Republican primary. Ironically, the Republican voters Romney thinks will like his mere four years in office were the same people complaining that Barack Obama’s eleven years in public office were insufficient preparation for the presidency. It’s also worth noting that Romney neglected to mention his failed 1994 Senate campaign. Had he won he would have served a minimum of six years, rendering him a feckless Washington bureaucrat incapable of managing an economy, right?
The most remarkable denunciation of government was Bachmann’s statement that she would tell a citizen they should keep all of every dollar they earn. From that it would logically follow that Bachmann thinks no government should exist at all.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for privatizing virtually everything he could think of. Gingrich thinks “government to government” foreign should be replaced by programs that encourage US businesses to invest abroad. “Our bureaucrats’ giving their bureaucrats money is an obvious step to corruption,” Gingrich averred. How this would apply to, say, military aid to his cherished state of Israel is unclear. Gingrich also wants recipients of unemployment benefits to be required to take lessons from a private business.
States as the great laboratories of democracy was a constant theme. Jon Huntsman dodged a question from moderator Chris Wallace asking how you can require insurance companies to cover anyone without an individual mandate by saying, “Let’s forget about the federal government and turn to the states.” How creating fifty different healthcare regulation bureaucracies is more efficient or less intrusive than one national one was left unexplained. Nor did Huntsman furnish any examples of how a state would actually solve the problem Wallace put to him.
Of course, every Republican has their token areas where concern for limited government flies out the window. For Rick Santorum, a notorious antigay bigot, that is sexuality. A gay soldier asked Santorum via YouTube what he would do about gays in the military. The soldier was booed by many in the audience. So much for the Republican mantra to “support our troops.” Santorum said he would deprive gay Americans of their right to serve their country by reinstating “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At perhaps the evening’s height of dishonesty, Santorum claimed that issuing a regulation that gays cannot serve was actually the position that would keep judgments on a soldier’s sexuality out of the public sphere.
Bachmann has her soft spots for government intervention too. Like Santorum, she has said at a previous debate that she would repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But she also called for a fence “on every inch” of our border with Mexico and more spending on Border Patrol agents.
Ron Paul declared to thunderous applause that the federal government “has no right to be in our schools, to run our economy, or to tell us how to run our lives.” Strangely, though, he does think the federal government should ban abortions. The conservative belief in the magical power to live without a government is so strong that it allowed Paul to dodge a question about why he supports abortion rights for rape victims and women who could die giving birth if he thinks abortion is murder by saying, “Only the moral character of the people will solve this issue, not the law.” The crowd cheered, as if what he just said made any sense whatsoever.
This strain of nonsensical thinking is endemic to Republican voters as well. In the focus group conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz after the debate, one man said he likes the idea of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency but added, “We should regulate to keep water safe.” Who does he think would do that if there was no EPA?
In an interview after the debate Bachmann said to Sean Hannity: “I don’t want to run the bureaucracy, I want to dismantle it.” Of course, bureaucracy is just an ugly word for government offices tasked with implementing the laws that our democratically elected representatives have passed. When Republicans say they want to dismantle “the bureaucracy” they are really saying they want to dismantle the government and the American people’s ability to solve our collective problems through the democratic process.