Commentary

How Republicans Can Outlast Clinton

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

It has been more than six decades since Republicans last retained control of the House, so even now, weeks after the election, the majority should be celebrating its success. But GOP leaders sound like they lost. It is not only in public that Newt Gingrich et al. prattle on about cooperating with the president. In private they evince equally little heart for battle.

Such defeatism is inexplicable. Bill Clinton’s triumph was one of weakness, not strength. He remains a better politician than any GOP leader, but that adroitness can only delay his administration’s collapse. It’s rather like Robert E. Lee vs. Ulysses S. Grant. The former was the more talented general, but the latter had limitless manpower and materiel. In this battle, Republicans have all the advantages-and Mr. Clinton suffers from handicaps greater than Lee’s.

Most obviously, the administration is awash in scandal. And not just Whitewater and its spin-offs, but more easily understood abuses like the sale of political access to foreign businessmen. Then there are the issues. A majority of those who voted on Nov. 5 want the federal government to do less. The president’s promise to weaken welfare reform is a political loser. The public is apt to have little patience with his patented “I feel your pain” performance if U.S. servicemen die in Bosnia or Zaire. Passage of the California Civil Rights Initiative will likely fuel a national campaign against the very racial spoils programs that Mr. Clinton’s core supporters expect him to defend.

In short, the GOP is well-positioned to make the president play defense. The Republican congressional majorities should:

· Pass an across-the-board tax cut. Voters liked the Dole 15% cut, but, understandably, didn’t believe that the tax collector for the welfare state would deliver. Congressional Republicans can deliver, but they need to make a moral case. Yes, lowering rates would stimulate economic growth, but that is merely a side benefit. People are paying far too much in taxes. The best and fairest cut is across the board. How to respond to the charge that the rich would get more back? People would save more only if they are paying more in the first place. The GOP needs to confront Democratic demagoguery head-on, pointing out that it would be more productive to help people become successful than to demonize the successful. The president either would have to offer serious tax reductions of his own or block tax relief for middle America.

· Really cut spending. If the GOP is serious about balancing the budget, it needs to eliminate outfits like the Commerce and Energy Departments. Skittish Republicans caved on spending earlier this year out of fear of another government shutdown. But if Republicans chose their targets carefully—foreign aid, the National Endowment for the Arts, business subsidy programs, and so on—then Mr. Clinton would have to shut, say, the State Department to preserve unpopular foreign assistance. The GOP would then be in the enviable position of simultaneously trying to reopen agencies and insisting that taxpayers’ money not be wasted. This is how the 1995 budget battle should have turned out, had the Republicans not appeared to be closing the government in order to raise Medicare premiums.

· Compare every Democratic spending proposal to Medicare. Republicans should shove the Democrats’ demagoguery on this issue back down their throats. Everyone acknowledges that the program faces bankruptcy in just a few years; thus, every wasted dollar is effectively taking money away from Medicare. With the elderly at risk, how can Democrats support the NEA, which pays people to slather their bodies in chocolate and stuff vegetables into various body orifices? Why should Washington fund the Corporation for National and Community Service when seniors’ medical future is at risk? Republicans need to pound home the message that every boondoggle is a direct attack on seniors.

· Slaughter GOP sacred cows. The worst scandal of the 104th Congress was its refusal to slash corporate welfare. Republicans actually increased market promotion subsidies, as if the Gallo wine family needs taxpayer support to advertise abroad. A campaign to kick corporate America-represented by poster child Archer Daniels Midland-off the dole would simultaneously make GOP efforts to balance the budget more credible and put Democratic defenders of big business on the defensive. Let’s see if President Clinton is willing to close the government in order to preserve alms for Boeing, IBM, Westinghouse, et al.

· Use committees to investigate and educate. First, the GOP needs to continue putting administration officials in the dock over their misdeeds. The process should be thought of as a political form of Chinese water torture. Second, hearings could be used to build the Republican case for its policies. It is time, for instance, that the GOP directly confront Democratic attacks on “cuts” in education. Consider hearings on the indirect, at best, impact of spending on quality, the factors that make schools successful, why private and parochial schools do so much better than public ones, and so forth. The two strategies should be combined when possible. The Republicans should kill the Commerce Department—the fount of corporate welfare—on principle. In doing so, they could further expose the politicization of trade policy by Ron Brown and company.

· Defund partisan lobbies. The GOP needs to kill grants to political organizations. Labor unions, pro-abortion groups, left-wing organizers, and liberal senior citizen activists all continue to subsist on the federal dole. Attempts to impose tight lobbying restrictions on federal grantees came to naught last year. Republicans should simply ax money for organizations that engage in partisan political campaigns or lobby on issues.

This effort should carry over to money collected with the de facto assistance of government. The Supreme Court has ruled that labor unions may not use mandatory dues for political purposes, but the Clinton administration has failed to enforce the Beck decision. Congress needs to condition continued funding of the Labor Department on effective enforcement of the law. Preventing organized labor from looting workers for campaign contributions would not only be the right thing to do. It would also reduce the Democrats’ electoral resources.

The Republican congressional leadership faces a crucial choice: focus on making a difference or holding onto power. If it chooses the latter it will likely fail at both. But if it confidently pursues an activist agenda the GOP congressional majority will almost certainly outlast Bill Clinton and transform the nation.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute