At Smirking Chimp, Barry Eisler wrote this perfect analysis of "small government" Republicans:
The GOP as the Party of Small Government. Republicans -- not just Republican politicians, but ordinary Americans who are registered and vote Republican -- still believe the GOP stands for small government. And yet the small government party created an additional $5 trillion in national debt during its last turn in office. When George W. Bush became president, the national debt was under $6 trillion; when he left, it was close to $11 trillion. I guess you could argue that Democrats are even worse, but even if that were true, an accurate description of what Republicans stand for would be something more along the lines of "slightly less big government."
But it's not true: just look at this graph, or at this chart. To find a notably fiscally responsible Republican president, you have to go back to Eisenhower. So at this point, if fiscal responsibility is an important measure of one's adherence to big or small government, the small government brand ought to attach to Democrats.
True, the national debt has continued to spike under Obama. We could argue about why -- whether, for example, the economic meltdown that occurred during the Bush Administration, for which Bush created the initial $700 billion TARP program during his last months in office, requires further fiscal stimulus to avert another depression. But even if you think Obama is even worse than Bush, that's a pretty thin basis on which to believe in the Republican small government brand.
Moreover, we're focusing here only on fiscal matters. If a new party entered the fray on a platform of torture, federalization of end-of-life decisions, federalization of marriage, imprisonment of suspects without trial, use of the military for domestic law enforcement, prohibition of drugs and SWAT raids into family homes to catch people smoking pot, empowering the State Department to strip Americans of their citizenship, and a trillion-dollar-a-year, million-and-a-half-man, eight-hundred-overseas-bases military, would you naturally feel, "At last! A party of small government!"? Yet these are all Republican policies. Again, Obama's record so far on war spending and civil liberties is as atrocious as (and in some ways worse than) Bush's, but Obama doesn't purport to be from the party of small government. Republicans do.
I suppose you could argue the Republican small government brand persists because the theory of the GOP is small government, with the problem being the corrupt way successive Republican administrations have implemented that theory. Maybe. But on that argument, shouldn't Communism continue to enjoy a solid brand, too? After all, "From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs" is a great theory, and was simply corrupted by Lenin, Stalin, and the various other heads of the Soviet Union. It's still a great idea, no?
That the GOP is still known as being more effective on national security -- the "daddy party" to the Democrats' "mommy party' -- is also impressive. If a Democrat had been in office on 9/11, or in 2006 when North Korea became a nuclear power, or if a Democrat had bungled Iraq and Afghanistan or let bin Laden escape from Tora Bora the way the Bush Administration did, it all would have been perceived as evidence, even proof, of Democratic fecklessness on national security. Instead, all of these events happened on the GOP's watch, with no apparent damage to the GOP's brand.
The GOP's reputation among the rank and file for sexual probity is also impressively resistant to contrary facts. There have been enough closeted Republican homophobes, outed Republican philanderers, and thrice-married matrimony traditionalists to form a parade, and yet the party still manages to wrap itself in a brand of "family values." And yes, you can point to Elliot Spitzer and John Edwards as counterexamples, but again, we're talking about brands -- particularly the power of certain brands to stay afloat despite being riddled with holes through repeated contact with contrary reality. What makes Republican sexual behavior remarkable -- in a way that Democratic sexual behavior isn't -- is that Republican behavior is contrary to the party's brand, yet seems to have little or no effect on it. Mark Sanford's own reputation for integrity was destroyed by revelations of his serial infidelity, but for some reason even an unending stream of Sanford-like sagas does nothing to diminish the GOP's ability to present itself as the party of family values.
The difference between individual brand vulnerability and institutional brand vulnerability is telling, I think, and I'll return to it in my conclusions.