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Friday, July 22, 2011

The GOP: For Federalism or Less Government?

The stance of Sen. Jim DeMint (SC-R) in 2010 is emblematic of the ambiguity in the hierarchy of goals in the Republican party. DeMint can be taken as being primarily oriented to restoring the balance of federalism by having the federal government do less and the State governments more, at least in terms of domestic policy. This could bring the General Government back to its enumerated powers. Accordingly, Time magazine maintains that DeMint’s real target in 2010 was “a radical downsizing of the federal government.” This downsizing includes “turning education policy over to the states and gradually dismantling safety-net programs like Social Security and Medicare.”

Even so, DeMint may not have been assuming that the state governments would then create various degrees of “safety-net.” That is, his agenda could have been to get government out of the business of providing basic needs to those who might otherwise not survive. In other words, his primary goal could have been to reduce government itself, especially outside of defense and foreign policy. For instance, citing “creeping socialism in the U.S.”, DeMint wanted to “shrink government.” He “was incensed by what he considered a growing public reliance on government largesse for things like housing, food and income, which to him was creating dependency and stifling free enterprise.” The senator’s ideal here is distinct from his goal of downsizing the federal government in order to shift power to the state governments. A shift does not necessarily imply a reduction. It is precisely on this point that the Republican Party has been far too ambiguous. What is more important to the party: less government or restoring federal government?

Too often, the two goals have been conflated by Republican office-holders, as if restoring federalism means a reduction in government. It is possible, after all, that restoring social programs at the State level could result in more government. As Massachusetts demonstrates, the states are able to enact expansive social programs such as universal health-care. However, in a federal system, one size does not fit all; republics such as Texas and Oklahoma would doubtless have approaches to health-care that rely on far less government. So moving to toward a balance between the U.S. Government and the governments of the member republics of the Union may or may not mean less government. Whether government is more or less would depend not just on what Congress and the U.S. President want, but also on what the elected representatives and heads of state in the member states want.

Therefore, a Republican might say, “I want a shift toward the states in domestic domains and I want my particular republic to have less government while the federal government focuses on defense, regulating interstate commerce, and foreign policy.” I contend that such an integrated position is rarely, if ever, enunciated on behalf of the Republican Party. I suspect that the reality undergirding the GOP is less government, with occasional lip-service thrown to federalism.

Source: Michael Crowley and Jay Newton-Small, “Leading the Rebel Brigade,” Time, November 29, 2010, pp. 34-37.