The too easy answer to the post-defeat inquest on the US right is that Dubya has not stuck to small government principles.
That's clearly true - but too shallow. After all, the difference with past conservative administrations is one of degree, rather than direction. The frequently offered contrast with the golden age of the Reagan ascendancy is largely a myth if the quest is for greater intellectual consistency in politics.
"Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem", said Reagan. But government spending grew all the same - and there was an increase in the number of civilian Federal employees. (In contrast, there was a reduction under Bill Clinton!).
In truth, as George Packer noted in an excellent New Yorker essay:
[Reagan] had failed to limit the size of government, which, besides anti-Communism, was the abiding passion of Reagan’s political career and of the conservative movement. He didn’t come close to achieving it and didn’t try very hard, recognizing early that the public would be happy to have its taxes cut as long as its programs weren’t touched. And Reagan was a poor steward of the unglamorous but necessary operations of the state.
In Thatcher's Britain, the Prime Minister probably did wake up every day asking how she could shrink the state.
And yet, the Institute of Fiscal Studies will confirm that, to quote
During Margaret Thatcher’s premiership public spending grew in real terms by an average of 1.1% a year, while during John Major’s premiership it grew by an average of 2.4%. (Source: IFS PDF file, page 3)
In Britain, public spending as a proportion of GDP was 43 percent in 1980 and 41.9 percent in 1996.
Cutting government sounds popular in the abstract. But it is much less so when it comes down to anything concrete and the real political choices, once we get past the obligatory soundbites where all parties offer a 'war on waste'.
Whether it is child protection, saving post offices, investing in health, education and childcare, getting the mortgage market moving again, or protecting us from the worst risks of a recession, all of the concrete calls are for government to do more, not less.
Smaller government is much less popular than the right imagines. And even their most ideologically motivated political champions knew it.