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Confronted with economic uncertainty, the congressional response is to promulgate new laws and regulations rather than cut taxes or exercise spending restraint. This is as true for the Republican-controlled House of Representatives as the Democratic Senate. When it was reported that the Bush administration was considering a tax package that would alleviate double-taxation of corporations and lower taxes on investors, some congressional Republicans were unenthusiastic.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA) doesn’t want to bring these proposals up for a vote. Robert Novak wrote that Thomas was opposed to the administration’s initiative, while columnist Bruce Bartlett reported that the chairman actually was concerned about whether he could secure enough Republican votes to pass it. Either way, something is seriously wrong when Republicans cannot be counted on to support even such modest tax cuts.
Paul Weyrich and other observers have complained that Republicans have recently given grassroots conservatives few reasons to vote for them. Failure to pass a tax cut that would benefit the investor class, potentially a key GOP constituency, would seem to confirm this analysis. Nevertheless, the problem is bigger than the political ineptitude that leads Republicans to fail to reward their supporters. A more pressing question is whether the Republican Party continues to stand for anything.
The GOP is certainly not as bad as the Democratic Party and there is no disputing that the party has its share of conservative stars. But the contrast between Republican governance and the party’s rhetoric as expressed in platforms and campaigns is jarring. Trent Lott is hardly an inspiring heir to Barry Goldwater. The centrality of values and ideas that Goldwater and his supporters brought to Republican politics is missing today.
This isn’t just a problem because it leaves conservative voters less motivated to work and vote for Republican candidates, although that does make it more difficult for the GOP to win elections (an irony lost on the very people who claim perpetual surrender enhances the party’s electoral prospects). By refusing to stand on principle or take risks, the party fails to offer meaningful solutions to grave national problems. To avoid offending anyone or losing elections, Republicans risk robbing their party of its reason for being.
Politics seldom rewards people who tell difficult truths. This is why so many successful politicians traffic in gimmickry and platitudes. But statesmanship requires much more. Ronald Reagan pressed his case against Soviet communism abroad and big government at home for years before he was elected to the presidency; as a celebrity political activist, politician and commentator he relentlessly championed the free market over the welfare state. While always surrounded by a core group of true believers, when Reagan entered the marketplace of political ideas in the 1960s, his views hardly represented anything approaching majority opinion. At that point, liberalism had been entrenched since the New Deal. It was the responsibility of a relatively small brigade of conservative activists, politicians and intellectuals to seek to persuade the public to break from this consensus. Reagan led rather than followed.
This is not to suggest that Reagan was perfect – as president, he accepted New Deal and Great Society programs that he had denounced as totalitarian while campaigning for Goldwater in 1964 – but to point out a critical difference between him and many current Republican leaders. Reagan ran for office not for the sake of holding office itself, but because he wanted to do certain things in the service of a set of beliefs he held. In his presidential farewell address to the nation in 1989, he remarked that he wasn’t so much the “Great Communicator” many had referred to him as during his eight years in office. Rather, he said that he had communicated great things.
Even George W. Bush, the most intuitively conservative president since Reagan, is often adrift without a philosophical anchor. John O’Sullivan once described him as a Tory, the sort of conservative who believes that good government is achieved by having the right people in charge to manage whatever may come up. The problem with this sort of conservatism is that it tends to leave an administration at the mercy of events.
Recent primary results may have strengthened the GOP’s hand in several key races, but without correcting this problem. Dick Armey, Phil Gramm, Jesse Helms, Bob Smith and Bob Barr will all be leaving Congress. Republican primary voters have chosen people like Elizabeth Dole, John Sununu and John Linder to replace them. Many of these people will be reliable Republican votes and all of them are preferable to the Democrats running against them. None of them will bring the passionate commitment to certain ideas and values that animated any of the conservatives who are leaving. Say what you will about folks like Barr (I certainly had my misgivings about him) or Smith (much as I admired him and hoped he would remain in the Senate, it is difficult to look at his post-1998 conduct without concluding that he has only himself to blame for his primary defeat). The GOP needs people who believe in things regardless of their popularity and are willing to occasionally rock the boat.
The times call for tough-mindedness. The United States today has a welfare state that will either have to be dismantled or allowed to exert an ever-increasing drag on productive Americans as the baby boomers retire. The financing of such entitlements as Social Security and Medicare grows more precarious by the year. The income tax burden has been shifted to a minority of Americans easily caricatured as “rich,” creating the unpalatable possibility that tax rates will someday climb back to destructive, pre-Reagan levels. Fiat money debases our currency. One year after September 11, our immigration system is largely unchanged, our borders are still vulnerable, no one knows who is coming and going and the only policy on this Republican administration’s radar screen is an amnesty for a subset of illegal immigrants. Our military may be under-supported and overextended. Our national sovereignty is being eroded. The Constitution is effectively a dead letter.
Republicans, at least the mainstream ones who hold the most sway over public policy, don’t appear ready to do anything about any of the above. Yet if they won’t, who will?
Of course, being tough-minded about any of those issues would probably come with high political costs. The dilemma of politics is this: You can’t accomplish anything if you don’t win elections, yet there is no point of winning elections if you don’t accomplish anything once elected. How does one weigh principle against political viability? Howard Phillips has very strong beliefs and is very committed to dealing with some serious issues. He is not ever going to be elected to anything, even dogcatcher, in this lifetime. Republicans scored a New York City mayoral victory with Michael Bloomberg, but other than the nifty “R” that appears next to his name when he is on television, the GOP is no better off from a policy perspective than if the Democrats had beaten him. Can a proper balance be reached?
Perhaps it is expecting too much of the Republican Party to expect that it provide Herculean leadership. After all, political parties exist to win elections and they can do that just as easily with bad ideas as good ones. But eventually some of our problems will need to be solved, probably by someone who isn’t afraid of a solution that might offend somebody or encourage a Democratic attack ad. Will the Republicans then find a leader who is up to the challenge?
Nor does this leader have to be someone with an answer to everything. From abortion to multiculturalism, Rudolph Giuliani was a squish of Arlen Specter proportions. Yet on the issues he could actually make a difference on, he was an extraordinarily tough problem-solver and excellent leader.
Many of the West’s center-right political parties are faced with
the challenge of either making themselves relevant or finding themselves
displaced – often by parties espousing platforms only that were
beyond the pale only yesterday. The GOP will someday find this day of
reckoning upon it. It will either rise to the occasion or go the way
of Canada’s Progressive Conservatives – or perhaps even
America’s own Whigs.