TAMPA, January 20, 2013 — One day before his second inauguration ceremony, President Obama has plenty of reasons to smile. Despite a persistently weak economy, he was reelected by a comfortable margin in November and then completely outmaneuvered his Republican opponents in the tax hike standoff. That ended with Republicans breaking a decades-old pledge never to raise taxes.
Following the usual calls for more gun control following a widely publicized shooting, it looks as if Obama has outmaneuvered the GOP again. After appointing Vice President Joe Biden to head a gun violence task force, Obama made an ominous-sounding statement.
“Well, my understanding is the Vice President is going to provide a range of steps that we can take to reduce gun violence. Some of them will require legislation. Some of them I can accomplish through executive action. And so I’ll be reviewing those today. And as I said, I’ll speak in more detail to what we’re going to go ahead and propose later in the week.”
The Republican response was predictable. Cries of constitutional crisis and calls for impeachment exploded from Republican politicians and conservative-leaning media.
Whether because of the Republican reaction or by design, Obama’s executive orders were remarkably uncontroversial. Despite rumors that the president had written 23 new executive orders restricting gun ownership, Obama actually didn’t write any. Instead, he wrote 3 “presidential memoranda” directing existing federal agencies to do a better job at what they are already doing.
This leaves Republicans who yelled “impeachment” before even hearing what the president proposed looking like “extremists” again, not to mention somewhat silly. It sets up the Democrats perfectly for the upcoming congressional fight over new gun legislation. Republicans will be under pressure to compromise to undo the political damage done by this latest gaffe.
There are certainly constitutional arguments against Obama’s actions, but Republicans are in no position to make them. Strict constitutionalists have long argued that the mere existence of agencies like the ATF and the CDC is unconstitutional, but the Republican Party, which created one and greatly expanded the other, has no grounds upon which to make this argument.
Those few GOP legislators who can do so with any credibility, like Senator Rand Paul or Rep. Justin Amash, are considered outsiders by the party elite.
There is a fundamental problem here that the GOP has to resolve if it does not wish to fade into irrelevance. It has to define some fundamental philosophical differences between it and the Democratic Party. Despite rhetoric about small government and free markets, there just isn’t any meat on the GOP bones for opponents of the Democratic Party to sink their teeth into.
Republicans frequently talk about “small government” but rarely will you hear them say “limited government.” There’s a reason for that. Limited government has never been part of the Republican Party platform.
The party was born in the 1850’s on a platform of expanding the role of government, generally along the lines of the Whig and Federalist platforms which preceded it. Back then, it was the Democrats who opposed “big government,” and had done so successfully for over 50 years before finding themselves on the wrong side of the slavery argument.
Once in virtually unopposed control of the federal government, the Republicans went on a government-expansion binge that spanned five decades. It was only after the Democrats completely redefined themselves with Woodrow Wilson and FDR that the Republicans were ever against the expansion of government power.
Even principled members of this “Old Right” were somewhat handcuffed by Republican history. As Murray Rothbard demonstrated, even the New Deal was merely an expansion of Herbert Hoover’s misguided interventions.
Once back in power during the Eisenhower years, the Republicans reverted to their traditional platform of expanding the role of government, with Eisenhower building a national highway system and creating the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now HHS).
Recent Republican administrations have been no different. Despite libertarian sounding campaign and inauguration speeches, Reagan eventually doubled the size of the federal government, proposing and signing the first $1 trillion federal budget. George W. Bush carried on by proposing and signing the first $2 trillion and $3 trillion budgets, while creating the Department of Homeland Security and a new federal healthcare entitlement program.
With this track record, Republicans are playing a weak hand trying to oppose Obama’s expansions. They are constantly reduced to arguing that they will manage big government more efficiently, rather than questioning the role of government itself. Ultimately, this is consistent with conservative philosophy, which has always maintained that all areas of human activity must be regulated, to “protect society” from man’s inherent “heart of darkness.”
Expect Republicans to remain “Progressive Light” in the upcoming congressional battle over guns, resulting in another Obama victory.
For the Republican Party to regain any relevance whatsoever, it is going to have to allow newcomers like Paul and Amash to remake the party. And grassroots conservatives must learn the difference between small government and limited government.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.