Contrary to Media Myth, Today's GOP Actually Less Conservative Than Before

It’s become a pretty much a staple of modern Democratic political rhetoric to say that today’s Republicans have departed from their predecessors in being more obstructionist toward liberal policy objectives. Since it’s something Democrats say a lot, it’s also a frequently repeated talking point in the self-described mainstream press as well.

Even some Republicans, like Bob Dole for instance, appear to believe this notion. Too bad it’s entirely a myth.

It’s particularly unfortunate to hear Dole buying into the myth because he was actually there and ought to remember how things were. When asked to reflect on some contrasts between the modern Republican Party and the one of his day, here’s what Dole had to say on the May 26 edition of Fox News Sunday.

“Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it, because he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.”

It’s not hard to see where Dole would get such ideas. This line of thought is something that media liberals and their Democratic counterparts have been pushing for decades. Bill Clinton described himself as an “Eisenhower Republican” frequently. In 2008, liberals such as New York Times columnist Gail Collins tried to portray former leftist activist Barack Obama as some sort of moderate because he wasn’t calling for communist revolution in his speeches. Failed former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham called him a “raging moderate” a few years later.

The talking point has become almost unavoidable recently after Obama himself embraced it at the perfect place to make such an argument, a convention for customers of the Associated Press, the powerful wire service which actually has a greater reach and influence than the New York Times or any television channel.

“I think it’s important to remember that the positions that I am taking now on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago or even 15 years ago would’ve been considered squarely centrist positions,” Obama instructed.

While the president is correct that a handful of his policies have mirrored those favored by some Republicans over the years, it’s simply inaccurate to say that his views are anywhere close to the Republicans of the past.

As Weekly Standard writer Jay Cost notes, it’s also grossly inaccurate to say that Republicans of yore favored far more centrist positions than today:

Consider the behavior of House Republicans during the Great Society Congress of 1965-66. That Congress produced Medicare and Medicaid, federal funding for education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and more. On item after item, Republicans in the House opposed or tried to alter drastically these measures. In fact, none other than Bob Dole​—​then a representative from Kansas​—​was a regular vote against President Lyndon Johnson’s major reforms. Along with a majority of his own caucus, he voted against Medicare. He voted to reduce spending in LBJ’s war on poverty and retain state authority over funds. He voted against federal funding of elementary and secondary schools. He voted to cut spending for housing assistance. He voted to cut highway beautification programs. He voted to delay implementation of a new minimum wage floor. And so on.

History likewise suggests a skeptical verdict on another liberal complaint of the modern age​—​that Republicans used to be reliable supporters of the very sorts of programs President Barack Obama has been promulgating. Congressional Republicans opposed Harry Truman’s universal health care program after the 1948 election; Dwight Eisenhower himself disliked it. They opposed Ted Kennedy’s late-1970s proposal. They opposed Bill Clinton’s universal care plan in 1994. As for Obama’s massive 2009 stimulus, Republicans in 1993 successfully filibustered a stimulus that cost a tenth of Obama’s proposal. Leading the charge for the GOP that time? Senate minority leader Bob Dole.

The truth is that both Democrats and Republicans have shifted leftward over time. Today, were a Republican to take many of the positions described above, he would be considered an extremist. Instead of trying to “destroy” the welfare state, Republicans are in many cases trying to increase spending on it or simply to make reforms to it.

One of the top arguments of many Republicans against Obamacare is that it takes money from Medicare to pay for itself. Far from trying to completely eradicate Social Security, Republicans have called for semi-privatization of the program, even though that policy will actually lead to more spending on it in the short term. Let’s also not forget that the congressional Republicans keep signing off on the radically increased federal spending baseline put in place by the original Obama “stimulus” instead of pushing hard for a return to more normal levels.

No longer do you hear Republicans in leadership positions talk about eliminating large bureaucracies like the Department of Education. Instead, Republicans were the ones responsible for No Child Left behind which increased federal education spending to levels never before seen. Republicans also passed the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the largest expansion of that program since its creation. It was also the GOP which created an entirely new department, the Department of Homeland Security. One also gets the distinct impression that Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower did not ever give speeches advocating for gay marriage.

Sure there are fewer liberal and avowedly moderate Republicans like Jacob Javits or Connie Morella than there were in the decades past. The primary reason for this is that Democrats have targeted such politicians for defeat, just as Republicans have done the same to conservative Democrats. The same sort of ideological pushes are also prevelant in primaries where both liberals and conservatives have successfully gone after Democrats and Republicans who do not fit into their respective parties’ overall political orientations. If liberals were truly upset that individual moderate Republican politicians are not more common, they would stop trying to target them in elections. That, of course, will never happen.

It makes sense that Democrats and their supporters in the media would try to portray themselves as the centrists of yesteryear. Such claims fit very well into the laments of every generation that “kids these days” listen to bad music and won’t listen to their elders. Neither of these is a serious argument, however. Smart conservatives would do well to push back against such obvious falsehoods.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013