Conservative commentator Chris Stirewalt cites January 1996 as a high point for modern conservatism.
Two years earlier, the Republican Revolution gave the GOP control of both the House and Senate for the first time since 1952. Stunned by the outcome of the midterm elections, Democrat President Bill Clinton pivoted and embraced key conservative principles.
In the 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton sounded positively Reaganesque.
“We know big government does not have all the answers,” Clinton told a joint session of Congress. “We know there is not a program for every problem. We have worked to give the American people a smaller, less-bureaucratic government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means.”
His very next line was the exclamation point. “The era of big government is over.”
Joe Biden was in the Senate at that time. Perhaps he stood and cheered. After all, Biden built a reputation as a moderate, at times even conservative, Democrat.
Biden campaigned in 2020 as the anti-Trump, the return-to-normalcy candidate, transitional and not transformational. But that is not how the first 100 days have gone. You know, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., believes the Biden administration has “exceeded expectations that progressives had,” that Biden is no government caretaker.
There was more evidence of that this week, as Biden rolled out yet another progressive and expensive proposal. The American Families Plan is a $1.8 trillion expansion of the role of government in the lives of Americans.
Free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, free community college, subsidized child care, a national family and medical leave program, reductions in health insurance premiums for Affordable Care Act plans, permanently increased child tax credits — all supposedly paid for with higher taxes on the wealthiest.
The New York Times called the plan, “a fundamental reorientation of the role of government not seen since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and [Franklin D.] Roosevelt’s New Deal.”
Tack that on to the $1.9 trillion for COVID-19 relief and another $2 trillion for infrastructure, and we are up to a cool $6 trillion in the first 100 days of the Biden presidency. The fiscally conservative editors at The Wall Street Journal are rightfully in a panic.
“The goal is to expand the entitlement state to make Americans rely on government and the political class for everything they don’t already provide,” The Journal wrote.
Republicans are pushing back against Biden’s plans, but before they get too righteous, they should look in the mirror. The GOP squandered its advantage from 25 years ago with costly and, ultimately, unpopular wars, obsession over Obamacare (which, it turned out, most people like) and a preoccupation with the culture wars, egged on by conservative media.
Railing against “wokeism” gets you on TV, stirs up the base and serves as a convenient hook for fundraising. However, it ignores the legitimate concerns facing many average Americans, allowing Democrats to move easily into that spot.
Biden’s big spending will further explode the debt, but what can Republicans say about that? Most were complicit during the Donald Trump years, when the national debt increased by 36% in less than four years.
Now, Biden and the Democrats are on a roll. They might not get everything they want — looking at you, Joe Manchin — but they are taking advantage of the moment and capitalizing on discord among Republicans, who cannot decide whether to re-litigate the 2020 election, fear monger about immigration or, as a scant few want to do, work on policy.
Late Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, delivered the Republican response to Clinton’s State of the Union address in 1996. Dole said, “President Clinton claims to embrace the future while clinging to the policies of the past.”
As it turns out, in hindsight, the Republicans never had it so good.