Friday, May 15, 2009

The Dynamic of American Political Parties

In response to this statement - “American conservatism, broadly speaking, has had a remarkable ability to assimilate the expansion of federal power.” - a discussion of the political party history arose.

“Henry Clay was a Whig—while we respect him as a very intelligent statesman, it is well to remember that “Whig” both here and in England was synonymous with “Liberal.” “

We need to clarify this ... Whig was synonymous with Liberal, and classical Liberals were for freedom. What happened in the US in Clay’s time was that the Whigs were the heirs of the Federalists/Hamiltons, so they were the Elitist/central-Govt party compared with the Jefferson-Jackson Democrats. Whigs were the big Government party of the 1830s. (But we shouldnt exagerrate what this meant; the Govt took 2% of the pitifully small pre-industrial GDP of that era, with Federal Dept staffs smaller than a local post office of today.) The Whigs wanted Federally directed road improvements, a tariff, and a national bank. The Jacksonians did not, and were distrustful of Federal power.

The Whig heirs, the Republican Party, continued this, but in the last 19th century the roles reversed, as the Democrats under William Jennings Bryan picked up the Populist rhetoric and platform.

The GOP meanwhile started getting some ‘progressive’ influence in the 1900-1910 Progressive era, that flared up when Teddy Roosevelt bolted the party and run against his hand-picked conservative Republican heir President Taft in 1912. Since then (1912), the conservatives have been the main force in the Republican party, but there has always been a moderate/liberal wing, whether Ripon, Dewey, Eisenhower, Lodge, Rockefeller on down to McCain.

1912 was also a turning point for the Democrats. Progressive Democrat Wilson won in 1912 and during WWI engaged in the largest expansion in Government power in US history up until that time. This trend was repeated in two subsequent eras, the FDR New Deal era, and the LBJ Great Society era. There remained a conservative southern Democrat wing, but it died out over time. For Texas, the turning point came in the election of Republican John Tower in 1960, the first Republican in a century.

Wilson's policies, then the New Deal and then 1960s Liberalism completed a 70-year process that migrated the Democrat party from the smaller Government side of the aisle to the bigger Government side. It wasnt so much that the GOP moved right, its that the Democrats moved left to embrace social-welfare-state economics and big government. Since FDR the Democrats have been the party of big Government more so than the Republicans. The Republican side saw a mix of more conservative/smaller Government Republicans (Harding, Coolidge, Republican Congress of 1946-1954) and big-Govt Republicans (Hoover, Nixon).

“The mention of the Eisenhower Administration is no better. Eisenhower was recruited by the Eastern “Liberal” wing of the Republican Party to head off the Conservatives under Taft.”

This was a missed opportunity for conservatives. The conservatives could have done a lot of good back in the 1950s in undoing excesses of the high tax rates and over-regulation of the economy imposed in the New Deal era; some of it was taken out by the Republican Congress of 1946-1948, but Truman vetoed much of the rollbacks. Eisenhower mainly served to just slow down creeping socialism/walfare-state, while locking in place the New Deal programs and high tax rates of the FDR era. This set in place a trend of "rachet Liberalism" where it seems the political flow was never in a conservative direction, but only in a liberal direction, and the Republican party only served as a brake. This held for most of the era from 1930 until 1980.

President Reagan (1981-1989) and Speaker Newt Gingrich (1995-1998) served to change this dynamic. Under Reagan, tax rates were drastically cut. Under Speaker Gingrich, Welfare Reform was enacted. Welfare reform undid many of the errors of the 1960s welfare programs, replacing dependency with an approach of 'welfare to work' to get welfare recipients in the labor force; Reagan's tax rate cuts both spurred the economy to grow by a third over seven years and in the process helped make the tax cuts largely pay for themselves. Both conservative reforms were very successful.

While President Clinton triangulated on economic policies with the Gingrich-led Republican Congress in such a way that spending increases were limited, the Bush administration, while pursuing other conservative policies including tax rate reductions, tacked back to big spending. The Obama administration seems to be picking up where FDR/LBJ/Carter left off - a trend of traditional Democrat left-liberalism, and increasing Federal spending, taxation, and regulation. While some of it is sparked by the financial crisis, most of it is not.

The Republican party by default of the actions of Obama and the Democrats are the smaller Government party. They are already opposing much of Obama's excessive budgets. How much smaller and how bright a distinction will be up to them, but unanimous no votes on the Democrats' budget is a start. The main challenge for the Republicans now is to stand athwart Obama making History yelling "stop!" while formulating and articulating successful alternatives.

No comments: