The idea that “Republican elected officials” may not care about deficits and small government but “American conservatives” do is indeed absurd:
One piece of pushback I got from some right-of-center folks to yesterday’s post on how conservatives don’t care about the deficit was to say that well maybe some Republican Party elected officials are bad on this, but the conservative movement is different. I think that’s entirely false. President George H.W. Bush struck a bargain with congressional Democrats that reduced spending and decreased the deficit. Some Republican Party elected officials backed him. But conservatives were apoplectic. After all, the bill raised taxes. And conservatives care more about making taxes as low as possible than they do about reducing spending or reducing the deficit.
Another common way to make this fallacious argument is Jonah Goldberg’s old line that because conservatives favor small government George W. Bush was really a liberal. The obvious problem is that a majority of actually existing modern conservatives have never favored “small government” per se. They may oppose government if it might in some way help poor people or protect people’s civil rights, but that’s a different thing; conservatives have never opposed using strong federal power to achieve conservative ends and help conservative interests. In addition, conservatives who support massive upper-class tax cuts can’t be let off the hook for obvious political realities. Since Medicare isn’t going anywhere and even Bush’s politically DOA Social Security privatization scheme would have been much more expensive in the short term and required inevitable bailouts in the long term, big tax cuts mean big deficits and there’s no evidence that they lead to smaller government. In addition to this is the obvious problem that among voters even people who favor “small government” in the abstract never support it in the particulars.