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George W. Bush Was No Ronald Reagan

When the George W. Bush administration turned out to be a failure, “conservatism” got the blame — even though Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (like so many others who served alongside them) had been part of the anti-Reagan wing of the Republican Party.

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This is the first of three excerpts we'll be publishing from Bringing America Home: How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back (Chronicles Press, 2010). Pauken is the chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission and was the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas when George W. Bush was governor.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in 1980, he referred to our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., as a swampland and urged his appointees in the federal government to help him “drain the swamps.” As my friend and fellow conservative Stan Evans likes to say, the problem was that, after a while, the swamp began to feel more like a hot tub for a number of the President’s appointees.

I saw that firsthand as the head of an independent federal agency known then as Action. The agency had been established in the Kennedy/Johnson years as the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). OEO became a major funding source for the “poverty pimps,” primarily East Coast-based consultants who got large government grants to fight the “War on Poverty.” Many of the so-called poverty warriors got rich off taxpayer dollars, but very little of the money trickled down to the poor people the agency was supposed to help. By the late 60’s, it had become a hotbed for the newly fashionable radicals of that decade.

Then Richard Nixon came to town and vowed to cut OEO’s budget. Howard Phillips, the first director he appointed to head OEO, tried to do just that, but he did not last long. Phillips was replaced by Congressman Don Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld made Dick Cheney his chief of staff and brought along a team of loyalists to take control of the agency. Both Rumsfeld and Cheney understood intuitively the ways of Washington. One does not get ahead by cutting spending and reducing the federal bureaucracy. OEO avoided the chopping block, and the Washington careers of Rumsfeld and Cheney took off.

Ironically, when the George W. Bush administration turned out to be a failure, “conservatism” got the blame even though Rumsfeld and Cheney (like so many others who served in George W. Bush’s administration) had been part of the anti-Reagan wing of the Republican Party.

By the time I took over as director in 1981, OEO had changed its name to Action and had a $160 million budget and a thousand employees. It may have been a small swamp by Washington standards, but Reagan was right: It was still a swamp, and a messy one at that. We cut the budget from $160 million to $120 million, the staff from 1,000 to 500, and accomplished a lot more with a lot less money. Our efforts to cut the bureaucracy even more were blocked by Lowell Weicker, the liberal Republican senator from Connecticut who was the subcommittee chairman overseeing Action.

Today, Action is called AmeriCorps and spends far more money than ever after eight years of Republican control of the executive branch under George W. Bush. Its budget in FY 2009 was more than $888 million—nearly eight times higher than when I exited the agency in 1985.

What happened at Action is not an isolated example of a failed attempt to rein in federal spending. A number of Reagan appointees took seriously the President’s call to cut wasteful federal spending and reduce the burden of federal regulations. I think particularly of Don Devine at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Ray Donovan at the Department of Labor, and James Watt and Don Hodel at the Department of the Interior. Yet each was subjected to negative attacks in the media instigated by those in Washington determined to preserve federal spending. Meanwhile, those who made their peace with the status quo were treated favorably in the mainstream media and furthered their own careers.

Too many of the agency and department heads, even in the Reagan administration, fell in love with their agency or department and became captured by the permanent bureaucracy. They wound up defending their “turf” and the spending needs of their particular department instead of cutting federal spending. Yet, in spite of all of these hurdles, overall domestic spending during the first Reagan term was kept under control, a fact not generally acknowledged by the liberal critics of the Reagan presidency. It was only in Reagan’s second term that the Washington establishment begin to regain control of the reins of the federal government. Domestic federal spending has not stopped growing ever since.

Even given the missed opportunities to get federal spending under control, for conservatives the 1980’s were the good old days compared to four years of George H.W. Bush, eight years of Bill Clinton, eight years of George W. Bush, and the first year of the Obama administration. Federal spending and unfunded federal mandates on state and local governments are completely out of control. Is there any hope whatsoever that a true federalist could actually get elected president, reduce the growth of federal spending, and return power to the states, local communities, and the people?

The Republican Party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan was a conservative party of limited government. That all changed in the post-Reagan era of Republican politics. The George W. Bush presidency embraced the philosophy of “big government conservatism.” That ideology has more in common with the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Society of Lyndon Baines Johnson than with the conservative philosophy of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

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