RUNNING FOR president on a third-party ticket in 1968, George Wallace famously claimed that there wasn't "a dime's worth of difference" between the Republican and Democratic nominees. Would anyone tuning in this year's crop of candidates say the same thing?
Consider some recent sound bites:
- "You said we would fight for every job! You said that we would fight to get healthcare for all Americans! You said we'd fight to secure our border! You said we'd fight for us to be able to get lower taxes for middle-income Americans!"
- "Guess what they're doing in Washington: They're worrying, because they realize, the lobbyists and the politicians realize, that America now understands that Washington is broken. And we're going to do something about it."
- "Washington told us that they'd get us better healthcare and better education - but they haven't. Washington told us they'd get us a tax break for the middle-income Americans - but they haven't."
You don't have to be a political junkie to recognize those as specimens of populist Democratic boilerplate, right? The only challenge is to match each quotation to the Democratic candidate who said it.
Except that no Democrat uttered those words. The three big-government platitudes above were taken from Republican Mitt Romney's Michigan primary victory speech on Tuesday.
No one is surprised when Dennis Kucinich or John Edwards insists that it's the federal government's responsibility to "get us better healthcare and better education." Coming from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the claim that the Bush tax cuts shortchanged middle-income Americans is all too familiar. But from a Republican like Romney, who casts himself as the truest, most Reaganesque conservative in the GOP field?
Romney's message used to be one of unabashed small-government conservatism: "Government is simply too big. State government is too big. The federal government is too big. It's spending too much." Those words still appear on his website, but there was nothing like them in his remarks last week. He told his supporters that Washington is broken and needs to be fixed - which is decidedly not the same as saying it needs to be shrunk. Romney used to boast of the hundreds of spending line-items he vetoed as Massachusetts governor; "I like vetoes," he told audiences. But these days he's singing from a different hymnal.
To be sure, Romney is not the only Republican candidate to distance himself from the gospel of less-intrusive, less-expensive government. Certainly no one would confuse Mike Huckabee - who as Arkansas' governor raised taxes, hiked spending, and expanded state regulation - with Barry Goldwater, the original "Mr. Conservative." And the man who succeeded Goldwater in the Senate, John McCain, is guilty of such big-government abominations as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and opposing the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts.
But it is Romney whose pitch has shifted the most as he (again) seems to be reinventing himself, this time as a big-government planner with more faith in the power of top-down federal intervention than in the innovations and efficiencies of the free market.
In Detroit last week, Romney vowed to resurrect the moribund US auto industry - which has been declining for decades - with massive corporate welfare and other government largesse. He derided as "baloney" McCain's blunt reality check that many auto manufacturing jobs are gone for good. He condemned "the absence of a federal policy designed to strengthen the US automotive sector," sounding for all the world as if he just stepped out of some 1970s statist time warp. He promised "a fivefold increase - from $4 billion to $20 billion - in our national investment in energy research, fuel technology, materials science, and automotive technology."
Whatever else it might be, this is not fiscal conservatism.
"If I'm president of this country, I will roll up my sleeves in the first 100 days I'm in office, and I will personally bring together industry, labor, congressional, and state leaders, and together we will develop a plan to rebuild America's automotive leadership," Romney now says. "Washington should not be a benefactor, but it can and must be a partner."
It must? That sure wasn't the Gipper's view.
"What is euphemistically called government-corporate 'partnership' is just government coercion, political favoritism, collectivist industrial policy, and old-fashioned federal boondoggles nicely wrapped up in a bright-colored ribbon," President Reagan declared emphatically in 1988. "It doesn't work." Far more effective, he had learned, was when Washington "cut taxes, spending, and regulation, and got government out of the way and let free people create new jobs and businesses."
Not a dime's worth of difference between the parties? No, I wouldn't go that far. But it would be nice if Republicans who claim to be Reaganesque conservatives occasionally paused to ask themselves: What would Reagan say?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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