Why McCain needs to read Goldwater

Those who aspire to elected office, and all those who hold office, would do well to heed the advice of Barry Goldwater, former Arizona senator and presidential candidate. None would benefit more than presidential nominee John McCain, Goldwater’s Arizona successor in the U.S. Senate.

Goldwater’s ideas, and the principles upon which they were based, laid the foundation for future Republican electoral successes. More importantly, they remain as prescient today in terms of their policy efficacy as they were in the 1960s.

When Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative” was released in 1960, the country was coming to the end of eight years of Republican rule under Eisenhower. Those two terms included the end of the Korean War and the beginning of the conflict in Vietnam. Federal spending had been rising, and both deficits and the expansion in the role of government were becoming more prominent issues. This may sound familiar because it accurately reflects America today.

In “Conscience of a Conservative,” Goldwater warned about the perils of expanding the welfare state, the negative effects of federal usurpation of states’ rights and the seriousness of the Soviet threat. Most applicable to 2008, however, are Goldwater’s ruminations on taxes and government spending.

“It is in the area of spending that the Republican Party’s performance, in its seven years of power, has been most disappointing.” This 1960 quote is jarringly prophetic today.

According to the historical tables, when Eisenhower was elected in 1952, federal government spending was $67.7 billion (nominal). When he left office in 1960, the federal government spent $92.2 billion, an increase of 36 percent. Fast-forward to today and the situation is similar.

Federal spending in the last year of the Clinton administration reached $1.79 trillion. This year, last of the two-term Bush presidency, it is expected to reach $2.93 trillion. (A number of analysts predict actual spending will exceed $3 trillion in 2008). This represents a 64 percent increase in federal spending on the Republicans’ watch. Indeed, many liken the growth in government spending under Bush to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives of the 1960s.

Current Republicans blame spending increases in the cost of national defense. That was also true in Goldwater’s time, and he didn’t buy it. “We are often told that increased federal spending is simply a reflection of the increased cost of national defense,” he wrote. “This is untrue.”

Current voters have good reason to agree with Goldwater. There has been a surge in money for defense, but that alone does not account for the overall increase in federal spending. It has soared across a wide variety of programs, including Medicare, agriculture and education.

One of Goldwater’s solutions, and what must become a more prominent part of McCain’s economic platform, is reducing the size and scope of the federal government. Goldwater offered this insight: “The root evil is that the government is engaged in activities in which it has no legitimate business.”

McCain must offer a series of specific areas in which the federal government should devolve greater responsibility to states, counties and individuals, as well as identifying some areas where the federal government shouldn’t be involved at all. The McCain campaign has already done some of this, but more is needed if he is to become the candidate for fiscal sanity and responsibility.

The result of fiscal responsibility is the opportunity for permanent tax relief. Again, Goldwater’s 1960 book is helpful. He stated, “… every citizen has an obligation to contribute his fair share to the legitimate functions of government. What is a fair share? I believe the requirements of justice are perfectly clear: Government has a right to claim an equal percentage of each man’s wealth, and no more.”

The implication is straightforward. Goldwater supported a simple, equitable and economically efficient flat tax. He favored a system that raised the necessary revenues in the least harmful and most fair manner possible. A side benefit of such a tax system is that it greatly rewards hard work, savings, investment and entrepreneurship, all things Americans want more of. A flat tax made sense then, and it makes sense now.

John McCain’s quest for the White House would be aided by more forcefully adopting the principles outlined by Barry Goldwater. Indeed, these principles would help any candidate or elected official because they make economic sense for the nation.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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