Why Romney's no Reagan: It's still politically unsafe to be anti-government

Romney’s circumspection is actually a sign of victory for liberals: it remains politically unsafe to campaign on a detailed anti-government agenda. There was a time when Republican Presidential candidates proudly and vocally campaigned on dismantling the federal government. In 1980, Ronald Reagan called for abolishing the Departments of Education and Energy and criticized H.U.D.

And yet, in office, Reagan, while famously failing to recognize his own H.U.D. secretary at a reception, could not get rid of the department—or any other, for that matter. His successor, George H. W. Bush, showed little interest in fighting similar battles. The first two years of the Clinton Administration reignited anti-government fervor in the G.O.P., and in 1995, after taking over Congress, House Republicans passed a budget calling for the elimination of the Departments of Education, Commerce, and Energy. Bill Clinton was pushed into adopting some Reaganesque language himself. “The era of big government is over,” he declared in his 1996 State of the Union address. Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican Presidential candidate, who was constantly fending off critics on the right, ran on a party platform that said, “As a first step in reforming government, we support elimination of the Departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Education, and Energy.” He lost…

So even as Republicans move to the right and conservatives come to dominate the party, the politics of dismantling government have not become more hospitable for them. Even for the most right-wing candidates, the ones who do call for getting rid of large chunks of the government, it can be a hard issue to campaign on.