Commentary

To Rebuild the GOP

By William A. Niskanen
This article appeared in the Washington Times on November 28, 2008

The broad defeat of Republican candidates in the 2008 election should be sufficient evidence the party had abandoned the principles that led voters to elect a Republican president for 28 of the last 40 years and to elect more Republican candidates to Congress until 2006.

A commitment to the following principles is a necessary condition for the GOP to regain a political influence proportional to their potential voter base. Listing these principles in alphabetical order but not necessarily their relative importance:

Competence: First, the GOP must regain a reputation for competence. Whatever the potential case for the current U.S. wars in the Middle East and the troubled asset recovery program (TARP), they could hardly have been managed with less competence. The two wars in the Middle East are now the longest wars in American history, with U.S. forces scheduled to stay in Iraq for three more years and who knows how long in Afghanistan.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has changed the focus of TARP every week or so since it was approved in October with no improvement in general economic conditions to date. And the authorization to loan up to $700 billion to the financial industry has led to a queue of other industries and now state and local governments seeking a bailout.

This history should lead the GOP to select a governor with a record of good management as its next presidential candidate, preferably one who has worked effectively with a Democratic legislature.

Constitutionalism: In 1929, federal expenditures were 3 percent of gross domestic product, mostly for the military and the deferred costs of prior wars; federal expenditures are now about 21 percent of GDP, mostly for programs for which there is no explicit constitutional authority. One should not have expected President Bush to reverse this pattern, but he should not have added to it. Instead, he initiated two wars without a congressional declaration, approved a broad reduction of civil liberties, and substantially increased federal expenditures for education, health and financial subsidies.

Reducing the federal government to its enumerated powers is a long-term challenge that is probably unrealistic. Congressional Republicans, however, should take the lead in opposing any unconstitutional exercise of current powers or any addition to these powers. Insist on a congressional declaration as a necessary condition for any new war, oppose any proposed legislation (like the Patriot Act or TARP) that authorizes an extraordinary delegation of powers to the president, and insist on a constitutional amendment to add any new powers.

Federalism: The United States was created as a compound republic in which the federal government had the potential to check an abuse of power by the state governments, and the state governments had the potential to check an abuse of power by the federal government.

Three developments in the 20th century, however, substantially increased the relative powers of the federal government at the expense of the states: The 17th amendment in 1913 substituted the direct popular election of U.S. senators for their appointment by the state legislatures. The rapid increase in federal grants to state and local governments after World War II made them petitioners for federal funds rather than a basis for countervailing political power. And the 1973 decision by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade threatened to reduce the powers of state governments to set the rules for a wide range of cultural issues, leading the social conservatives to become an increasing part of the national Republican coalition beginning in the 1980s. In the 2008 election, however, the dominant role of the social conservatives in the Republican base led GOP candidates for federal office to lose the support of many voters who are economic conservatives and cultural liberals, especially among younger voters and suburban college-educated voters.

One way or another, the future of the GOP as a national party will depend on appealing to these groups without losing the support of the social conservatives. This is consistent with a continued effort to overturn the Roe decision and to oppose any other federal decisions on social issues in order to reinforce the authority of state governments to set the rules on these issues.

Fiscal responsibility: The Bush administration has unfortunately undermined the traditional Republican commitment to fiscal responsibility by two irresponsible arguments - (1) that tax cuts would “starve the beast” and (2) that spending other peoples´ money is “compassionate conservatism.” As a consequence, federal expenditures have increased faster than at any time since the Lyndon Johnson administration, and the federal budget has changed from a $128 billion surplus in fiscal 2001 to an expected deficit of nearly $1 trillion in fiscal 2009!

There is no way to restore a reputation for fiscal responsibility other than a broad confrontation with the Obama fiscal program. Oppose every major new spending program, including the proposed tax credits to the middle class. Reinforce the existing support for a pay-go rule, even at the risk of a tax increase. Look for some budget cuts that might be supported by the Democrat “Blue Dogs.” Stop pretending that budget deficits do not matter; they are effectively a tax increase on your children and grandchildren.

Realism in foreign policy: For a decade or so now, U.S. foreign policy has been guided by a small group of former Democrats who call themselves neoconservatives. That group led us into three wars, several other military interventions, a large increase in the defense budget, some reduction in our civil liberties and the antipathy of much of the rest of the world - in the name of countering imagined threats and promoting democracy.

Until the brief Gulf war of 1991, every U.S. war in the 20th century was initiated by a Democratic president and approved by a Democratic Congress. There was every reason for the Republicans not to repeat this record. Of course, there are evil people and dangerous governments in the world. In December 2001, I made an argument in a televised debate that Saddam Hussein was a thug and the Iraqi government was a threat to its own population and to its neighbors, but that was not a sufficient basis for the U.S. government to go to war because Iraq was not a direct threat to the United States.

The best guidance on U.S. foreign policy was made in 1821 by then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” The GOP should restore its more characteristic commitment to a realistic foreign policy - one based on a more realistic evaluation of the major threats to America´s most important interests.

Tolerance: Finally, Republicans should recognize that the United States is a heterogeneous society of people who do not agree on everything. To rebuild the GOP, it must be “an inviting and welcoming people” - welcoming to people with different views on some issues, welcoming to people of a different background, race, religion, education and lifestyle. Otherwise, the future of the GOP is that of a small party of middle-class white Southerners, and the future of the United States is a “progressive” loss of liberty to an ever-increasing state.

A commitment to these principles would also prove to be a sufficient condition for the GOP to regain political influence if, as is probable, the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress overestimate the breadth and strength of their temporary mandate, which is based primarily on a negative referendum on the record of the federal government during the Bush administration.

William A. Niskanen is chairman emeritus of the Cato Institute.