**I have been procrastinating about writing this book review for weeks. For some reason when it comes to non-fiction I have a hard time knowing what to say. I want to be detailed and tackle the issues involved but I just don’t seem to have enough time and energy to write that kind of review. It eventually dawned on me that this is a blog not the Claremont Review of Books. So below find a quick overview of the book and my reaction.**
If you are a conservative Republican who believes in limited government there should be a warning label on this book: May Cause Depression (should not be read just before an election). Of course if you have been paying attention, the fact that the GOP has lost its way on fiscal discipline is no surprise. But a detailed description of just how bad things have gotten, and just how quickly the party lost its courage, is less than encouraging to say the least. And that is a good description of Stephen Slivinski’s Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government.
Buck Wild basically has two components: a history of recent GOP attempts to cut or constrain government; and an argument for divided government as a way to slow down the growth of government. The first component is deeply researched and well written; and rather depressing. The second component is interesting and worth thinking about but ultimately not convincing in my mind.
The thing that comes through in Buck Wild is just how hard it is to tame the beast that is the federal leviathan. It takes political will, and capital your willing to spend, and a very thick skin. When the momentum builds it is possible to restrain the growth of spending and to hack away at programs and budgets. But if one’s will or focus ebbs, the structure and culture of Washington take over and the budget will again grow and expand. Federal programs are like weeds that have to be destroyed and pulled up from their roots to avoid re-growth and re-infestation.
Slivinski carefully outlines how President Reagan and Newt Gingrich and the new Republican majority of the 104th Congress were able to make progress in the battle for limited government. He then goes on to describe how that progress was largely abandoned by subsequent Congresses and in particular under President Bush.
Again, this story is really nothing new for those that have been paying close attention to the budget process in recent years. But if you haven’t had it laid out in depressing detail, Buck Wild will do it for you. Despite heroic effort from people like Mike Pence, Tom Coburn, and other budget warriors the fact of the matter is that limited government has lost most of the battles during a time when Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House. If that doesn’t make you re-think things a bit I don’t know what will.
Slivinski’s conclusion after studying this ugly history is that divided government works best to limit growth. The basic principle is that partisanship is the one thing you can count on in Washington. If the two parties are fighting over programs and policies less is going to get done and thus less is going to get spent.
In particular, Slivinski thinks the GOP works best when it is fighting Democrat spending. This dynamic changes when the debate is intra-party. It is much easier to attack big spending proposals when they are coming from a Democrat president; or veto bloated budgets when thy come from a Democratically controlled Congress.
This argument is an interesting one but I think it has some flaws. Two leap to mind. One, it is hard to get a handle on all of the factors that might go into increased spending. The political environment, the economic conditions, the strength and position of the political parties, the individual politicians involved, the larger world situation, all of these things are almost constantly in flux and make an impact on the desire and ability to cut or restrain spending. I am not sure you can easily isolate these factors and simple say divided government means less growth. It might work that way in certain circumstances and it might not in others. I think it clearly worked during the Clinton Administration, but I think it is less clear that it would work under the Bush White House.
Relatedly, one cannot isolate the goal of limited government from a host of other important goals and principles. Foreign policy, immigration, taxes, judges, and other important issues can’t be abandoned simple because the GOP has lost its appetite for smaller government. Voters and activists have to weigh all of the factors and make a choice on which party is the best overall choice.
Given the relative moonbattery of many Democrats these days, it is hard to contemplate simply handing them the reins of power. Just because the lesser of two evil arguments is often unpalatable doesn’t make it any less a valid strategy.
Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that the GOP’s abandonment of limited government, and the haze of incompetence and even corruption that seems to be seeping around the edges of the party, is forcing conservatives to rethink their alliance. Those who care about this issue will certainly want to think about how they can best go about recapturing the momentum and bring some sanity back to Washington.
Buck Wild is a well researched and written discussion of this issue. Slivinski provides a lot of food for thought and makes some arguments worth thinking about. Regardless of whether you agree with his conclusions or not, you will need to deal with the facts he presents. I will grant you that doing so is depressing, and that there are no easy answers, but ignoring an issue is rarely the best policy.