One of the inevitable election-year pundit cliches that always makes me cringe is this response to any accurate criticism of either party’s lack of promised execution: “Yeah, but it would be so much worse if the other guys had won.” You know what I mean – in fact, I’m sure you can sing along:
Hey, the last time the GOP was in power they went from a surplus to a huge deficit. Yeah, but it would be so much worse if the other side won. The HCR the Democrats passed doesn’t actually address the underlying problems that have created a healthcare crisis, such as annual exponential cost increases. Yeah, but it would be so much worse if the other side won. Policies like No Child Left Behind, the expansion of medicare, and the Patriot act don’t reduce federal government’s role in our lives, they increase it. Yeah, but it would be so much worse if the other side won. We’re still in Afghanistan, and we just used Bush’s timetable in Iraq, and we used our arm forces in Libya as well. Yeah, but it would be so much worse if the other side won.
Not surprisingly, I have never found such arguments convincing, and have long suspected they are a psychological tweak our brain makes to avoid having to face the fact that the parties we swear such allegiance to use their platitudes more as marketing tactics than policy guidelines. However, even I was taken back by this graph, courtesy of Talking Points Memo, that shows the growth of federal government spending over the first term of every US president since 1980:
What’s striking to me about this graph is that it doesn’t show that growth after each president is similar regardless of party, which is what I would have guessed. Rather, the growth is actually somewhat negligible during the first term of the two Democrat presidents, and startlingly steep with all three of the Republicans. Had it been just Bush II I’d have been willing to write it off as being the guy unlucky enough to find himself in two wars. But since Bush I and Reagan’s growth is actually closer to his than Obama and Clinton’s, I’m not so sure.*
My theory, which I will be the first to admit is a thinking out loud theory that you, dear reader, might well cause me to abandon, is this: The two major political parties are not really in the business of pursuing political ideologies. They are in the business of gathering power, and the wealth and influence that such power brings. They will use political rhetoric, but not out of blind devotion to a cause so much as a way to get out the votes and wallets. Because of this, the single most important goal of a new presidential administration is not, in fact, to pursue a political agenda. It is to secure reelection. The best way to do this after a hard fought national election? Tack back to the other side, placate some of those you bested at the ballot box, and avoid looking to the center like the ideological extremist the other party will surely paint you to be.
I suspect there was a time this was not the case, back in the day where there were almost three years of essentially behind-the-scenes governing that were done prior to gearing up for the next election season. However, in our modern era of constant media new election cycles start almost immediately after old ones are put to bed.
So if you are a Democrat, that means reigning in spending as best you can without alienating your base. If you’re a Republican, that means not eliminating costly but popular federal programs, and perhaps even increasing them so that you can lure those swing voters in a few years time.
This obviously works best on the fiscal side of things, but there are certainly cases of it working in other areas political litmus. It was bleeding hearted Clinton, after all, that most successfully started rolling back affirmative action. “No Nukes!” might have been a liberal cry, but it was Reagan that first go the ball rolling on the START treaty. It is doubtful that a Democrat would have had the support to nationalize education standards to the degree that Bush did. And of course, to quote Spock: “Only Nixon could go to China.”
So if a fiscally conservative government is your primary goal, maybe you don’t want to vote for Romney, Santorum or Gingrich. In fact, if the current talk of going to war with Iran is sincere, then maybe it’s a lock to vote Obama.
*Plus, you can also make the argument that the fact that we were in two prolonged wars rather than a single military strike was itself a decision made by the Bush II administration.
UPDATE: Because it was requested in the thread, here is what the surplus/deficit levels looked like going back to 1980: