We saw it coming months ago. Hillary Clinton is positioning herself as a centrist.
And, frankly, it’s not hard running as a centrist against a competitor like John Edwards, a hair-obsessed limousine liberal who thinks the War on Terror is just a bumper sticker. Hillary’s made it clear that she doesn’t believe the War on Terror’s just a bumper sticker. And she also says that her notion of universal health care is more economically sound than the others.
But that Hillary Clinton—whose vision of universal health care was considered so radical that it was ultimately disowned by President Clinton—has emerged as a centrist says a lot about the ideological direction of the country. What’s changed is simple but profound: Big government is back.
The first man to reverse the growth of big government was Ronald Reagan. With the exception of an increase in defense spending to win the Cold War—later reaped by Bill Clinton as the “Peace Dividend”—President Reagan cut spending and committed himself to downsizing the federal government. He fundamentally challenged the notion that a bigger government was a good thing. He appealed to our historic roots of self-determination and denounced the idea that a “nanny state” can take care of us better than we can take care of ourselves.
Americans responded whole-heartedly to Reagan’s message. We were happy to get government off our backs and out of our pockets. Media reports about people suffering from Reagan’s “cruel” policies were directly contradicted by a reversal of fortunes in the economy: inflation, unemployment and interest rates began to come down and economic growth took off. Seven fat years of steady economic growth following Reagan’s tax cuts did more than make us richer: it reignited America’s can-do spirit.
Americans were so pleased with an increase in old-fashioned self-reliance and a decrease of government interference in our lives that even Democrats began singing that tune. In his 1996 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton announced the following:
"We know big government does not have all the answers. We know there's not a program for every problem. . . . The era of big government is over."
Never has an era’s demise been so badly miscalculated.
When President Clinton announced the end of big government, the federal budget was $1.6 trillion. Today, the federal budget is over $2.8 trillion! And this is after six-and-a-half years of a supposedly "conservative" president.
So what happened to the era of smaller government? Was there a groundswell of public opinion demanding that government keep growing?
No. What happened is that we twice elected a Republican president who decided that the era of big government is not over. Even discounting the extra spending for the war in Iraq and security costs associated with 9/11, President G.W. Bush signed off on an enormous increase in the size of government.
Of course, the president doesn’t actually spend the tax money that flows into Washington, D.C. — that’s Congress’s job. But a president can veto Congress’s spending bills. President Gerald Ford vetoed seven appropriations bills during his two-and-a-half years in office. President Bush has vetoed none — not even one appropriations bill in his six-and-a-half years in office.
A president can also initiate spending programs, like LBJ’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s. President Bush may have only initiated one major spending program — but it was a doozy.
Without anything close to a popular mandate for the idea, President Bush initiated and signed into law the largest new “entitlement” program since the creation of Medicare—a $400 to $700 billion (over 10 years) prescription drug plan that lowers the bar for socialized medicine and will likely increase the degree of fraud and waste in our already stumbling health care system.
The irony is thick. While Democrat Bill Clinton signed off on a bill that reversed the liberal notion of a welfare state, Republican G.W. Bush signed into law a bill that increases the notion of the state as the provider of welfare, even for those who are not poor.
So when Hillary lays out an agenda that includes a spruced up version of her once discredited plan for universal health care, she seems only mildly more to the left than her Republican counterparts today. Her philosophical commitment to the power of big government merely codifies what President Bush’s policies exemplified. She recently told folks in Manchester, New Hampshire that it’s time to replace an “on your own” society with one based on shared responsibility. “I prefer a ‘we’re all in it together’ society,” she said. “I believe our government can once again work for all Americans.”
What might have sounded like Fabian socialism 20 years ago is now passed off as mainstream. The era of big government is back in vogue. The only question is whether voters want to go retro.
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David Asman is the host of "Forbes on FOX" which airs on the FOX News Channel, Saturdays at 11 a.m. ET.