WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says a government that works properly can be best-equipped to help and protect the public. Republican believers in a less-is-more government generally disagree.
Yet on a variety of policy fronts, pressing financial and other needs are forcing Republicans to concede more publicly than usual that minimalist government isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution.
Natural disasters batter states. Security threats highlight the need for a robust defense apparatus. Offers of federal dollars for health coverage are tough to reject.
Most conservatives see Obama’s presidency as epitomizing overreaching and bloated government. They point to his health law, various bailouts, stimulus spending, universal pre-kindergarten and tough environmental rules as prime examples.
The perception of an out-of-control government has gained steam in the early months of Obama’s second term, with his foes citing the Justice Department’s snooping on reporters in leak investigations and an admission by the Internal Revenue Service that agents unfairly targeted conservative groups.
“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.
In recent days, some Republicans have done just that.
This past week saw the president play arcade games and trade jokes on a Jersey Shore tour with GOP Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Christie is 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.
While Congress stalled on storm aid, it was Christie and other Northeast Republicans who criticized members of their own party for insisting that Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars 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, it was Mary Fallin, another Republican governor with a distaste for over-the-top government spending, who welcomed Obama and the post-tornado aid his administration brought.
In Arizona, GOP Gov. Jan Brewer is in a fight 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 law, she’s now told the Republican-controlled Legislature that she’ll veto every bill sent to her until lawmakers approve the expansion.
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, with Washington 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 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 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 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.”
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 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 recently proposed closing the costly Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba and allowing greater oversight and limitations on when and how the U.S. can assert itself militarily overseas.
Those ideas 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.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
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