Over the course of eight years, President George W. Bush cast aside limited government principles that attracted many activists to the Republican Party in favor of “compassionate conservatism.”
“We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move,” Bush declared in 2003.
Policy-wise, this guiding philosophy translated into the massive expansion of the federal role in education in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Medicare prescription drug plan, which added trillions of dollars to the nation’s long-term debt and represented the largest expansion of entitlements in decades.
Overall, between 2001 and 2008, federal spending soared from $1.86 trillion to $2.98 trillion – by 60 percent. As a parting shot to limited government supporters, Bush forced through the Wall Street bailout in the fall of 2008.
This experience helped shape the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010 as it became a force in American politics. It’s the reason why ever since the beginning, Tea Party activists would see as their adversaries not only Democrats, but also Republicans who didn’t share their small government philosophy.
The influence of the Tea Party has been a welcome development for those who have always lamented that there’s historically been plenty of pressure on politicians to protect government programs, but little pressure coming from the other side when lawmakers refuse to act to rein in government.
The problem is that as time has gone by, Tea Party activists have come to see as their adversaries not only Republicans who support increasing the role of the federal government, but anybody who disagrees with their strategy for shrinking government.
We have seen this with intraconservative debates over the debt ceiling, the fiscal cliff, government shutdown and the current rift over defunding Obamacare.
Over the past several years, conservatives who have argued that House Republicans wouldn’t be able to get Obama and Senate Democrats to sign off on genuine entitlement reform, an extension of all of the Bush tax rates or on a budget that defunds the administration’s signature legislative accomplishment have been dismissed as “squishes” by Tea Party groups and their allies.
But those who are sympathetic to the Tea Party are conflating tactical disagreements with ideological disagreements.
During the Bush era, there was a pretty clear ideological disagreement between limited government conservatives and compassionate conservatives. Bush’s expansions of government were especially egregious not only because he initiated and fought for them, but because a Republican-controlled Congress went along with him.
If there was a parallel to this in the Obamacare battle, it would be the Republican governors who have fought (or continue to fight) to expand Medicaid under the law – an expansion that will cost federal taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade.
These governors deserve all the wrath they get from Tea Party activists because they actually have it within their power to contain the fiscal damage of Obamacare and are instead accelerating it.
That’s a far cry from the current situation in Washington, where Republicans merely control the House of Representatives.
There are plenty of people (myself included) who are ideologically in line with the Tea Party when it comes to passionately opposing Obamacare. But at the same time, we see no possible scenario under which the stated strategy of passing a budget bill that defunds Obamacare and then digging in actually results in killing Obamacare.
As the movement matures, Tea Party activists should differentiate between those who have reasonable tactical disagreements with them and those who are their actual ideological foes.