Commentary

Desperately Seeking an Agenda

By Stephen Moore
March 17, 2000
When Republicans abandon their conservative/libertarian bloc of voters, they don’t expand their base, it evaporates. The political graveyard is full of contemporary examples. Gerald Ford. George Bush. Bob Dole. The Republicans in Congress in 1998. All retreated from the tax cutting/limited government theme of the GOP and got punished at the polls.

Undeterred by history, Republican campaign strategists want to dust off this playbook one more time for campaign 2000. It will almost assuredly yield the same unhappy returns.

I recently asked a leading Republican consultant what the overriding themes will likely be in this November’s congressional elections. What will drive impassioned voters to the polls? The answer: money and moderation. Money: raise as much of it as possible. Moderation: run to the 50-yard line on the political playing field and camp out there.

The GOP’s uninspiring “to do” list reflects this attitude. Senate Republicans now have the following priorities for 2000: increasing the 1997 budget caps, spending a lot more on education, expanding Medicare coverage, retiring the national debt, “saving Social Security” and raising the minimum wage. Clinton and Gore could and should sue the GOP for plagiarism. Meanwhile, tax reform, Social Security privatization and elimination of federal programs have all been elbowed off the negotiating table.

John McCain’s improbable upsets of Bush in some early primaries — carrying essentially a Democratic message — is unquestionably one driving force behind this new tactic of making nice with big government. McCain’s capacity to attract independent-minded “Perotista” voters, and even some conservative Democrats, has GOP leaders salivating like frat boys watching scantily clad Jennifer Lopez saunter onto the stage during the Grammys.

Seemingly, every talking head in Washington agrees that voters — even Republican voters — don’t want tax cuts and don’t want “risky schemes” for Social Security. Former Clinton Democratic political guru Paul Begala recently dismissed tax cuts as “so 1980s-ish.” And so it is that, to hold on to the House and Senate, the Republican brain trust — and rumor has it that there really is one — has decreed that Reagan tax cuts are out. Eisenhower debt retirement is in.

Not so fast. A just-released Zogby poll of 1,000 registered Republican voters suggests that this is a dingbat strategy. The poll, sponsored by the Club for Growth, should be read and memorized by every GOP office-seeker. The results verify the lessons of recent history: if the GOP de-emphasizes its core cluster of growth issues, its conservative base will tune out and stay home.

One question asked: How likely would you be to turn out to vote in the 2000 elections if the Republican congressional candidate supported simplifying the current IRS tax system? Eighty-two percent responded “very likely”; 11 percent, “somewhat likely.” Only 3 percent said “not likely.”

A second question asked: How likely would you be to turn out to vote in the 2000 elections if the Republican congressional candidates supported allowing workers to place some or all of their payroll tax dollars in an individual retirement account?

Two-thirds said they would be “very likely” to turn out to vote for the candidate. Only 7 percent said “not likely.”

Here’s the problem. When was the last time Republicans spoke about the flat tax? The national sales tax? Why, after five years of GOP control of Congress, has the idea of allowing workers to place at least a portion of payroll tax dollars in personal IRAs not even come up for a vote? Someone needs to knock Trent Lott’s and Denny Hastert’s heads together and remind them that a Social Security “lock box” is a clever gimmick but no substitute for a privately owned, fully funded retirement system. Similarly, eliminating the marriage penalty is a nice start, but it doesn’t make the tax code any less convoluted and it doesn’t get the IRS out of our face.

The 1998 elections were a debacle for Republicans primarily because, after Congress spent months busting the bank on the budget for bloated highway bills and Clintonite social programs, dispirited conservative and libertarian Republican voters had no compelling motivation to go to the polls. And so they didn’t. The GOP actually lost the vote of Americans with incomes of more than $75,000 a year. Predicted GOP gains vaporized and GOP majorities narrowed some more.

Given the widespread mood of voter contentment around the country, the GOP may not be able to win with its traditional pro-growth, anti-big government agenda. But the Club for Growth poll indicates they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning without it.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.