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After every State of the Union Address, whichever political party doesn't have control of the White House chooses a leader to deliver a response speech. Usually this is a person who is going to be running for president in the future.
Bob Dole was that guy in 1996.
Dole had a tough job when he delivered the response. His speech criticized Bill Clinton for propping up the welfare system, expanding Medicaid, and generally favoring "big government." Talking about the national debt, he made an appeal to parents and grandparents of America:
If we continue down this path we will place a tremendous burden of debt on every child in America. How can we betray them, their parents and grandparents?
The only problem was, Clinton had beaten him to the punch. The "big government is over" line pretty much curtailed all of Dole's criticisms. Not to mention, Clinton had fulfilled his promise to shrink the deficit during his first term. Dole's speech was sort of like a divorced dad bringing an X-Box to his kid's birthday party, only to arrive and find that the kid's step-dad already bought an X-Box.
Still, the Senator had a point. Unlike an X-Box Clinton's words were words, not material things, and the Republicans had favored larger cuts to more programs than the President during the budget debates of the previous year.
Talking like a conservative does not necessarily make you a conservative, and many commentators, like the next person on our list, viewed the sitting President as someone who might talk about shrinking government, but still keep it big.
Brownstein, a prominent political journalist and author, theorized that Clinton's speech was part of a strategy to minimize the difference between the two parties. In a Los Angeles Times story about the 1996 State of the Union, he wrote:
Since last summer, that tactic has proven enormously effective for Clinton, allowing him to simultaneously present himself as an advocate for reform and a buffer against 'extreme' Republican proposals to retrench the federal government.
The outcome of the 1996 presidential election proved that Brownstein had some sort of crystal ball. The president's approval ratings just kept shooting up, and Republicans weren't able to present a sufficient contrast in ideas and policy.
This perception—as Brownstein phrased it, the parties only disagreed on "the means," not "the ends"— actually lasted beyond the Clinton presidency. In 2000, many journalists and members of the public perceived little difference between the candidates of the two major parties.
George Bush would famously quip in a debate: "the difference is that I can get it done!"
Ever play that card game "BS?" Well, the 1996 election was basically a huge game of "BS" between Bill Clinton and the Republican Party.
Clinton promised smaller government, and the Republicans responded with, basically, "We don't believe you. We call BS." In their official party platform, adopted by the delegates to the 1996 Republican National Convention (basically a kick-off party for the presidential nominee), Dole, Gingrich, and allies laid out their differences with the president.
The gist: more cuts to more programs. Clinton was cautious about cutting things like Medicare and Medicaid, but Republicans wanted to eschew the scalpel in favor of the axe. As he promised in the 1992 election, Clinton was chipping away at the deficit, slowly. Republicans wanted to blow it away with dynamite.
It's a disagreement that's common in politics. Often, both sides want change, but some want it to happen faster. In the words of Jim Harbaugh, "I want cake now!"
Speechwriter Michael Waldman said that Bill Clinton's 1996 State of the Union might have killed off liberalism. But if there was one person who made "big government" a dirty word (yes, we know that it's technically two words), it was President Ronald Reagan.
In a way, Reagan was Clinton before Clinton. First running for president against incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, he served two terms and finished as one of the most popular presidents of modern times. With his trademark humor, he moved the country in an economically conservative direction, preaching the ideology of lower corporate taxes and so-called trickle down economics .
Reagan talked about shrinking government programs and reducing bureaucracy, famously quipping, "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
(Personally, we think it's ten words: "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." But there's no point in getting bogged down with the specifics.)
Recently, however, there has been an ongoing historical reevaluation of Reagan's performance as president. More and more journalists and historians are pointing out that, contrary to his public statements, he actually increased government spending in significant ways, especially on defense. (Source)
It's sort of like that movie you really liked in the theater, but then you noticed all the plot holes.
The fact remains: after "the Gipper," as he was known, you couldn't openly profess liberalism, even as a Democrat. The enduring popularity of Reagan's philosophy fueled the ideological revolution behind the 1994 midterm elections, in which Republicans ran on social conservatism and small government. (Source)
When Johnson became president after the Kennedy assassination, he launched a series of domestic programs designed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice.
Historians have dubbed Johnson's domestic agenda "the Great Society," from a speech he gave at the University in Michigan in 1964. (Source)
Johnson started more government programs than there are Rocky sequels. Enduring programs like Medicare and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities are still around today. Other acts provided more funding for public education and nature preservation. Factor in defense spending during the Vietnam War, and you can understand how "the era of big government" Bill Clinton talked about in 1996 arguably began with Johnson.
He's also responsible for this hilarious bit of unintentional comedy.
Roosevelt was the most popular and important Democratic president…until Clinton came along.
He was elected a whopping four times, drawing comparisons to Roman dictator Julius Caesar from his critics. (Source)
Roosevelt practically invented federal bureaucracy during the Great Depression. When he first accepted his party's nomination for the presidency, he delivered a speech with the promise of "a new deal for the American people." (Source)
The New Deal was essentially a strategy to use government spending to help lift the pressures of the Great Depression from the shoulders of the American people. Drawing on the economic principles of John Maynard Keynes (Source), Roosevelt figured that things were so bad in the economy (and they were) that the government ought to intervene to help people find work and start saving money again. At the time, he was accused of favoring socialism.
Later on, Reagan and Republicans would lead a contrary ideological movement based on the economics of Milton Friedman, a conservative economist who favored limited government spending.
So: what do you think? Should the government spend money (you know, taxpayer money) to create programs, or stay in the corner like a boxing coach?