Ramesh Ponnuru counters the GOP’s spending myth, but acknowledges the reality behind it:
There are elements of truth in the conservative story. Bush-era Republicans did spend too much, refusing to make room for increased security budgets by cutting anything else. Bush’s sincere belief that K-12 education could be reformed from Washington was naive. The Republicans’ almost uniform rejection of President Barack Obama’s stimulus and health-care legislation really did contribute to their victories in 2010.
But there’s little evidence that big government was the reason, or even an important reason, for Republican defeats at the end of the Bush years.
Obviously, I agree with this, since I have been saying it for many years, and I was making a version of this argument just last week. Big-government Bush-era programs and policies were not conservative in any meaningful sense, but these were not the things that caused movement conservatives to break with Bush. It is natural for activists and high-information voters to believe that their preferred policies will help their party win elections, and it is understandable that they interpret electoral defeats as punishments for following the wrong policies. It makes sense that they define defeats in terms of abandoning principle. All of us would like to think that our “side” can regularly have political success while still being rooted in principle, but there is usually little or no reason to believe that holding fast to principles in making policy helps very much to win elections. It would be excellent if good policy were rewarded with electoral success, but the belief that this is what happens is a delusion that there are no trade-offs between the two. It is part of a mentality that says that we can have it all, which is the same mentality responsible for overwhelming public support for entitlement programs combined with strong hostility to paying for them.
Creating the myth about excessive spending as the cause of defeat after the 2006 midterms was an exercise in changing the subject. The excessive spending was real enough, but it wasn’t what made the party so deeply unpopular. In 2006, the pro-war Republican need to find an explanation for a major defeat caused mainly by the war in Iraq was strong, and the myth that excessive spending had driven the GOP from power was useful in many ways. It was an issue that could unite Republicans while they were in the opposition, it provided them with a convenient narrative to account for what had happened, it flattered conservatives without demanding that they re-think or learn anything, and it served as a ready-made distraction from the disastrous foreign policy errors that the administration and its GOP supporters had made. Of course, post-2006 and post-2008 Republican rhetoric about the evils of excessive spending was mostly just that (see the 2010 demagoguing of Medicare cuts), which points to an awareness on the part of elected Republicans that fiscal restraint and responsibility are actually quite unpopular.
Fiscal restraint and responsibility also happen to be what the country desperately needs, but that doesn’t mean that the party willing to embrace them will be rewarded by the public.