Dick Armey writes in a Wall Street Journal column today what most conservatives understood for the past several years — that “compassionate conservatism” was just another name for Big Government.  The former Majority Leader under Speaker Newt Gingrich traces the fall of the GOP to the beginning of the Bush administration and its spending policies:

To be sure, the American people have handed power over to the Democrats. But today there is a categorical difference between what Republicans stand for and the principles of individual freedom. Parties are all about getting people elected to political office; and the practice of politics too often takes the form of professional juvenile delinquency: short-sighted and self-centered.

This was certainly true of the Bush presidency. Too often the policy agenda was determined by short-sighted political considerations and an abiding fear that the public simply would not understand limited government and expanded individual freedoms. How else do we explain “compassionate conservatism,” No Child Left Behind, the Medicare drug benefit and the most dramatic growth in federal spending since LBJ’s Great Society? …

Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006 because voters no longer saw Republicans as the party of limited government. They have since rejected virtually every opportunity to recapture this identity. But their failure to do so must not be misconstrued as a rejection of principles of individual liberty by the American people. The evidence suggests we are still a nation of pocketbook conservatives most happy when government has enough respect to leave us alone and to mind its own business. The worrisome question is whether either political party understands this.

Newt Gingrich sounds a similar tone in this interview with a George Washington grad student, especially at the end:

However, in the midst of the Bush-bashing, I want to point out something Gingrich says. He states that as long as the government spends multi-trillion dollars every year, lobbyists will gather to get their share, distorting the political process and leading to corruption. The only way to reduce or eliminate the influence of lobbyists in Washington is to reduce the amount of spoils they can grab.

Gingrich is right, and so is Armey, as far as they go.  That process also works in reverse, though, something both Armey and Gingrich neglect to mention.  Armey does some measure of self-congratulation in noting the roles of himself, Gingrich, and John Boehner in opposing the “old bulls” of the party in 1994 and winning with the Contract with America.  What neither Armey nor Gingrich mention is the parallel “K Street Project” that Republicans launched to get lobbyists harnessed to the Republican Party.  In order to do that, they needed to guarantee spoils to these lobbyists, which meant more money spent at the federal level and an explosion in earmark spending.

We can certainly criticize the Bush administration for its high-spending ways, but let’s not kid ourselves that the Republican problems started with W’s inauguration.  The seeds of the spending explosion got planted in that K Street Project, and that signaled the end of small-government conservatism in that era.  Gingrich is right in that we need to cut spending in order to minimize the influence of lobbyists, but we can’t trust any party to do that when they’re busily bribing lobbyists in order to support a supposedly “permanent majority”.  Republicans forgot why they wanted that power, and got seduced by it instead, and well before Bush took office.