One major principle of Barack Obama’s presidency that his foes love to hate — that government, when it works right, can be best-equipped to aid and protect Americans — is finding fresh currency among some Republicans.
Their doctrine that smaller government is better government is being tested by pressing needs in storm-battered states, security threats that play up the need for a robust defense apparatus and offers for federal funds that are tough to turn down.
To be sure, conservatives looking to pare the government have had their pick of examples to make Obama the poster boy for overreaching, bloated government — think “Obamacare,” bailouts, the stimulus, universal pre-kindergarten and environmental regulations, to name a few. The perception that Obama has let government grow out of control has been bolstered in the rocky first few months of his second term by word that the Justice Department was aggressively snooping on reporters in leak investigations and an admission by the IRS that its agents unfairly targeted conservative groups.
But on other policy fronts, unmet needs are forcing Republicans to concede more publicly than usual that minimalist government isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution.
“You’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems,” Obama recently told graduates at Ohio State University. “You should reject these voices,” he added, promoting the positive role government can play.
Obama walked side by side this week along the Jersey Shore with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a fiscal conservative who has shown no patience for massive government spending — except when it comes to billions in federal aid for his state after Superstorm Sandy. In fact, it was Christie and other Northeast Republicans who criticized members of their own party for insisting that Federal Emergency Management Agency aid be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.
“Republicans, Democrats, independents — we all came together, because New Jersey is more important and our citizens are more important than any kind of politics at all,” Christie said on Tuesday.
Two days earlier, in a tornado-razed community in Oklahoma, it was Mary Fallin, another Republican governor with a stated distaste for over-the-top government spending, who welcomed Obama and the aid his administration brought to her state. She praised FEMA and Obama, reprising a scene that’s played out in other disaster areas when the federal government and its considerable resources have been in high demand.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, GOP Gov. Jan Brewer is going to the mat to force lawmakers in her conservative-leaning state to embrace a dramatic expansion of Medicaid made possible by an infusion of federal dollars under Obama’s health care law.
Although she joined other Republican governors in suing the Obama administration over the constitutionality of the president’s health care law, she’s now told the Republican-controlled Legislature she’ll veto every bill they send her until they approve the expansion. She nixed five bills last week — a move that led the state Senate president to accuse her of extortion.
Brewer’s administration in recent years installed a Medicaid eligibility freeze to help balance the state budget. But rejecting the Medicaid dollars under the new law — Washington is offering to pay 100 percent of the cost for the first three years — meant telling about 300,000 poor Arizonans they’re out of luck while their counterparts in other states get coverage.
“I never liked the Affordable (Care) Act,” Brewer said earlier this year. “But, we don’t cut off our nose to spite our face.”
So Brewer joined eight other Republican governors, including Christie, in calling for the expansion to go forward. Six of those governors have so far received legislative approval or appear on track to do so.
“I think governors who take that are being expedient,” said Chris Chocola, the president of the fiscal conservative group Club for Growth. “They’re certainly not limiting the size of government.”
White House officials say they’re not surprised, saying it’s consistent with a Republican pattern of railing against the government until something happens in their state or district that merits assistance or rescue.
“It’s reverse NIMBY politics in a way,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior White House adviser. “Instead of not in my backyard, the GOP philosophy is only in my backyard, not anyone else’s.”
But Republicans say that while there are some exceptions among their ranks, the differences are generally small and the overarching philosophy remains intact and widely embraced. On disaster aid, for instance, they say Republicans have consistently supported it as a concept; the key question is how to pay for it.
“The conservative movement and the Republican Party is not arguing for a government the size of zero. It’s arguing for a government that acts responsibly and makes decisions about priorities,” said Dan Hazelwood, a Republican strategist whose clients have included former President George W. Bush. “The binding of the coalition is generally, we want the trajectory down.”
He contrasted that to the position of Democrats, who he said “want to just increase everything.”
Other fractures in the opposition to a strong central government have been highlighted by the renewed look at how the U.S. protects itself against security threats abroad. Obama’s proposals in a major speech last week to close the costly Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba and to allow greater oversight and limitations on when and how the U.S. can assert itself militarily overseas were met with doubts from some prominent Republicans, who suggested the military needs broad latitude to fight terrorism threats. (Other conservative Republicans supported making some of those changes.)
The conviction among Republicans that not all parts of the budget are ripe for a trimming continues to crop up in the perpetual fight over the federal budget, too, where deficit-wary conservatives are nonetheless pushing to preserve and increase funds for the Pentagon. In the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee, a plan for the 2014 budget year would spare the military from cuts and even restore dollars eliminated in the automatic spending cuts that took effect in March.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
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