Big government is staging a comeback.
When Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, he famously
declared, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is
the problem." Since then, conservative small-government ideas built on
a foundation of deregulation and low taxes have dominated the debate
over what role Washington should play in the economy.
Now the tide is turning, political experts on the right and left
say. A combination of circumstances, including the resurgence of the
Democratic Party and fallout from the worst financial crisis since the
Great Depression, is giving impetus to wholesale expansion of
government economic intervention.
"We've gone through a period of three decades when the default
assumptions were conservative assumptions," said William Galston, a
senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and a
policy adviser in the Clinton administration. "That framework has
probably been torpedoed by events."
If Barack Obama is elected president and Democrats strengthen their
grip on Congress, the period could be transformative. Democrats would
enact a series of programs that they believe would boost economic
growth and improve middle-class living standards.
But even if Republican presidential candidate John McCain were to
win, a far-reaching expansion of government's regulatory authority
would be likely. The nation's brush with financial collapse has changed
the game. Despite McCain's small-government preferences, he now vows
"much stricter oversight" of the financial system.
Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House
Financial Services Committee, argues that the nation is entering a
period of resurgent government activism that will resemble Franklin
Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s.
"This is the end of the era of extreme laissez-faire, of 'Don't tax
it, don't regulate it,' " Frank said in an interview. "That has now
been totally evaporated."
Conservatives acknowledge they have lost the initiative. But they
see the current period as a temporary detour in a nation where
free-market capitalism remains the ruling principle.
"The pendulum swings between big-government liberalism and
small-government conservatism," said Dick Armey, former Republican
leader in the House of Representatives. "We're going though one of
those periods now. Democrats are feeling their oats. But the pendulum
will swing back in our direction profoundly."
Democrats have already made public an important part of their
agenda. Last week, House Democrats proposed a new economic stimulus
package that would include money for highways and other public works,
added unemployment benefits and help for struggling states.
If Democrats enhance their congressional majorities, in the longer
term there will be "an explicit effort to try to approach the
inequality issue," Frank said. "We'll look at income distribution,
sensible regulation, trade treaties."
Obama's economic plan contemplates a range of new government
initiatives, including a broad expansion of health insurance coverage,
tens of billions of dollars for investment in alternative energy, and
increased spending on education and infrastructure.
Even before the financial crisis hit, the idea that government
should keep taxes low and get out of the way of business was under
assault. Critics argued that three decades of conservative economic
policies had fostered inequality and eroded living standards for
working and middle-class families. Democrats pushing for programs such
as universal health care were poised for big gains in this year's
At the same time, the Bush administration and congressional
Republicans gave their party's economic stewardship a bad name,
conservatives acknowledge. Government got much larger. While taxes were
cut, spending rose rapidly throughout the Bush years. Military
spending, anti-terrorism, a Medicare drug benefit and pet congressional
projects sucked in hundreds of billions of dollars.
Then the housing market collapsed, generating loan losses that
overwhelmed the financial system. That calamity - and the need to
devote more than a trillion dollars of taxpayer money to deal with it -
discredited the notion that markets can take care of themselves.
Finally came the astonishing spectacle of a conservative Republican
administration purchasing ownership stakes in the nation's leading
"We nationalized financial institutions and banks by executive
fiat," said David Kotok, chief investment officer of the New Jersey
money management firm Cumberland Advisors. "Once this begins to occur,
this trend has only one direction to go. The free-market-capitalism
economy is history."
Liberals say the emergency is fostering a political climate friendly to big government.
"It creates an opportunity," said Matthew Yglesias of the Center for
American Progress. "The current crisis makes it more likely that
(Democrats) will be able to enact an expansive agenda."
Still, some question whether the stars are so perfectly aligned.
They ask whether the need for emergency measures to stabilize the
financial system translates into a groundswell for big government.
For one thing, the public is deeply suspicious of Washington. A
recent CBS/New York Times poll showed that more than 80 percent of
those surveyed didn't believe government could be trusted to do what's
right. And a Pew Research poll released last week found no significant
gain in support for government regulation of business.
"We're at a real low point in the public's view of government
effectiveness," said Michael Dimock, Pew's associate director of
Others maintain that the Reagan era created a lasting base of
support for the notion that government shouldn't try to manage the
"There's a general understanding all over the world that markets are
the basis of prosperity," said David Boaz, executive vice president of
the libertarian Cato Institute. "What's taking place now is a move to
the left within that."
Then there's the question of how hard Democrats will push their
activist philosophy, particularly in a period when the budget deficit
is at record levels and resources are scarce. The answer hinges greatly
on the enigmatic figure of Barack Obama, who variously displays leftist
and centrist sides.
FDR or Clinton?
"We will find out if he is a new Franklin Roosevelt or a new Bill Clinton," Boaz said.
Roosevelt of course presided over the greatest expansion of
government economic power in U.S. history. Clinton adapted to
conservative dominance by declaring in 1996 that the era of big
government was over.
The view that Obama, if elected, would preside over an era of reform
comparable to the New Deal is rooted in the idea that the financial
crisis comes at the culmination of a long period of stagnation for wage
"During the Roosevelt era, money was spent building our middle-class
society, unemployment insurance, Social Security, the GI Bill," said
Norton Garfinkle, author of "The American Dream vs. The Gospel of
"Then Reagan came along and went to the pre-1930s Republican point
of view of trickle-down economics. The data show that didn't work. We
are now at a turning point. Obama is coming back to the fundamental
principles of the Roosevelt revolution."
At the same time though, Obama has promised to reduce the budget
deficit and not to increase the overall size of government. And the tax
reductions he espouses would keep a low ceiling on government revenue.
"Obama is self-consciously and explicitly moderate in what he
proposes," said Stanford University economic historian Gavin Wright. "I
wouldn't call his program a new New Deal. But I would say that Obama is
trying to re-create the notion that the great majority of Americans can
aspire to the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle. It's going to be
Clintonomics without the shenanigans."
Of course, a new president will come to office in the midst of dire
economic circumstances. That could force either candidate to rewrite
his playbook and take more dramatic action.
If Obama is president with large Democratic majorities in Congress,
"the new unified government will be on probation," the Brookings
Institution's Galston said. "It will be essential for government to
display effectiveness, implementing positive changes in the lives of
There's another possible outcome. "I would bet that the Democrats
will overreach, creating a real chance for a Republican revival in
2010," Boaz said.
That's what Armey, the former Republican House leader, expects:
"My advice to Barney Frank is to make hay while the sun shines.
Because, for the next couple of years, you guys are going to run amok
and scare the devil out of the American people."