Commentary

A New Republican Agenda for the Future

The Republican echo chamber reached a crescendo on Election Day. Turnout was at record levels as enthusiastic Romney supporters around the country were preparing to take their country back.

Oops.

Even the most committed GOP operative recognizes that something went wrong. Candidates for blame include the biased media, Democratic vote fraud, and the Obama campaign’s superior electoral targeting. Obviously to many Republicans the loss was someone else’s fault.

The real problem is the GOP message. The traditional Republican issue triad of fiscal responsibility, national defense, and social regulation is broken. The electoral coalition which delivered the White House to Ronald Reagan three decades ago is headed toward civil war.

Washington’s wild spending, huge deficits, and massive unfunded liabilities are the most important challenge today. However, the Republican Party gave away that issue under George W. Bush and the Republican Congress. The GOP increased spending across-the-board and added the biggest expansion in the welfare state in four decades, the Medicare drug benefit. The GOP tossed money at the Pentagon, creating new unfunded liabilities out of two unnecessary wars, which ultimately will cost trillions after caring for injured veterans for the rest of their lives. Bush created the bailout programs used by Barack Obama.

The various Republican campaigns did little better this year. The GOP ran against the idea of a budget sequester because it insisted on protecting bloated military outlays. Mitt Romney promised to safeguard Social Security, even though the system has started running a deficit, years earlier than predicted, and the much-ballyhooed “trust fund” is an accounting fiction. Ads for Republican George Allen in the Virginia Senate race criticized his opponent, Tim Kaine, for being a spendthrift and supporting the Obama stimulus — as well as for backing cuts in military outlays and reducing education expenditures. Duh?

The GOP’s foreign policy can be summed up in two words: permanent war. Throughout the Cold War Republicans held a political advantage in foreign policy. However, George W. Bush’s bungling also wrecked the GOP’s reputation in this area. Voters rated President Obama ahead of his Republican challengers as military commander-in-chief.

Nevertheless, Republicans remain locked in the past, determined to paint their Democratic opponents as weak irrespective of the facts — such as Obama intensifying the Afghanistan war. Thus, excepting the redoubtable Rep. Ron Paul, during the primary debates the Republican contenders, most of whom had never been anywhere near a military installation let alone worn a uniform, did the foreign policy equivalent of the Maori Haka, clamoring for a bigger military to be used more often against additional countries.

Mitt Romney spent five years, from his announcement until the final debate, simply shouting “we’re number one.” Although the Republican nominee did his best to avoid stating a clear position, at times he seemed to believe that the U.S. should have stayed in Iraq forever, over the objection of the Iraqi government, and be prepared to stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary for undefined “victory,” which likely would be forever — both positions anathema to the vast majority of Americans. Then a couple of weeks before the election he declared himself to be a peacenik. All that was missing was him wearing beads and making a peace sign.

As for social issues, Romney presented a conservative agenda in which he never seemed to believe. He was for abortion before he was against it, before he ended up being not so against it. He was against a contraception mandate that was part of Massachusetts law. He was for limited government, except when it interfered with people’s personal lives. The Republican Party’s mantra was perceived to have gone from “leave us alone” to “make everyone conform.”

The result was an electoral wreck. Although the margin separating Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was small, the GOP could take little comfort. If Republicans can only come close when the Democratic incumbent is presiding over a painful recession and engaged in an orgy of unpopular spending and borrowing, when can Republicans hope to win?

The GOP should rethink what it stands for. Fiscal responsibility certainly, but in practice as well as in theory. That means resisting pork and earmarks, a temptation to which many Republicans yield, and targeting corporate welfare, since business does not need a hand-out.

That also means tying military outlays to security challenges, not an arbitrary share of GDP. Why should Americans spend as much as the rest of the world combined on “defense” when that means subsidizing rich allies, engaging in foolish nation-building, and launching military actions that create more enemies than they kill? There can be no sacred cows if the budget crisis is going to be resolved.

As for the “entitlements” that threaten to swamp the budget, Republicans must point out that recipients have not paid for Social Security and Medicare, which is why the nation’s fiscal future is so bleak. On average the latter alone pays out nearly four times as much in benefits as it collects in taxes from recipients. The starting point of reform should be to means-test, that is, kick the rich off the dole. And why should Washington force young workers into Social Security, which will pay them less than they “contribute”?

Republicans should explain that their argument against tax hikes is not hatred of government, but recognition that Washington wastes money prodigiously. There’s no justification for letting the Feds seize more resources from working people. As for the “rich” who the Left expects to provide everything, they already pay the most in taxes and there aren’t enough of them to fund a generous welfare/warfare/bail-out state.

On international issues Republicans need to rediscover the value of peace. For most of the campaign Mitt Romney channeled George W. Bush and John McCain. Yet conservatives once believed in peace. They opposed wasting lives and money on dubious international crusades; they understood that war threatened economic prosperity and social stability. If war became necessary they wanted to win and end it, not turn it into a permanent condition. Indeed, Ronald Reagan was horrified by the prospect of nuclear war and refused to be sucked into nation-building in Lebanon. Republicans should promise there will be no more interminable wars for democracy promotion and nation-building in the future.

The GOP also should insist on international welfare reform. For more than six decades Washington has subsidized the defense of Asian and European allies. All are now prosperous and populous. Indeed, the Europeans collectively have a larger GDP and population than America. It’s time for Republicans to admit that the party is over. The U.S. should spend less while its friends spend more — and they will do so only if the U.S. spends less.

This doesn’t mean “isolationism,” the all-purpose swear word against a traditional, constitutional foreign policy. For instance, if Republicans want to promise a more prosperous future, they should promote free trade internationally. The U.S. remains the world’s most productive economy. Americans can beat the best at commerce.

Moreover, seeming hostility to all immigrants is an economic minus as well as a political loser. The GOP should support an increase in legal immigration, long a plus to American society, while debating the parameters of immigration reform. How should we repair socializing institutions that have weakened and limit public subsidies, especially for education and health care in border states, that have expanded with the welfare state? Is unlimited “birthright” citizenship appropriate today, especially if it has become an inducement to illegal immigration? While rounding up and deporting millions of people who are here illegally is unrealistic, how do we design a citizenship process that does not unduly reward those who illegally “jumped the queue” compared to those who followed the law?

Tolerance should be the GOP perspective on social questions. Republicans need to avoid the perception that they are acting out of spite. Years ago some religious-political activists went into a White House meeting publicly denouncing “sodomites.” That openly offensive approach is rare these days, but a similar motive is sometimes suspected nonetheless.

The gay marriage issue is lost. There will be more battles, but changing social attitudes suggest that the balance is permanently shifting. Indeed, opposition increasingly is seen as a sign of intolerance. (I write as a Christian who long supported civil unions, not gay marriage.) Principles of federalism would suggest leaving the issue up to the states, while focusing the fight on protecting true tolerance — including for those who believe in the historic Judeo-Christian teachings. That is, while gay marriage is increasingly legalized, government should not force private individuals and institutions to recognize it. That includes companies in choosing which benefits to provide to which partners. People should be left alone to make their own decisions.

Indeed, the expansion of the state into ever more areas of life, such as health insurance, increases the importance of defending individual and religious liberty. Republicans should unashamedly insist that “live and left live” appropriately runs in both directions.

For instance, the administration’s contraception mandate was bad insurance, since genuine insurance does not cover “conditions” over which the insured has complete control — that is, having sex. As a policy the rule makes no sense because there are a host of treatments, such as for cancer and cardiac disease, which are far more important and therefore theoretically more deserve to be delivered “free” (of course, patients will continue to pay, just indirectly).

Instead, the mandate appeared to be motivated by political spite, the desire of activists to humiliate their opponents. The desire was not to ensure access to contraception, which is inexpensive and widely available, but to force those who oppose the practice to pay for it. That is, the mandate is an aggressive, offensive use of the state against a fundamental freedom. Republicans should go on the offensive to vigorously defend the latter.

There are hard issues, such as abortion. Another life is involved, so it is not just a question of tolerance or even liberty. However, Republican candidates need to demonstrate that they are acting out of compassion, not vindictiveness. The principle is simple: If you choose to have sex, you share responsibility for any life that results. The debate should be over what that responsibility entails. The purpose of an abortion ban is not to impose values but to protect life and choice by ensuring responsibility. However, those who want to philosophize about the theological implications of rape should join a seminary rather than run for office.

Every few years someone writes the political obituary of one of the major parties. Doing so always ends up being premature. However, the Republican Party’s failure to defeat a president who is well to the left of the country and whose entire first term was characterized by no to low economic growth demonstrates that the GOP is in serious trouble.

The answer is to mix a rediscovered commitment to fiscal responsibility with devotion to peace and tolerance. There still is a place for a robust debate over what real defense entails as well as the responsibilities which naturally accompany the exercise of freedom. But fundamental changes are essential.

The Republican Party brand is bust. Republicans aren’t likely to win in 2016 unless they realize that they deserved to lose in 2012.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to former US president Ronald Reagan.