Commentary

A Republican Agenda for Real Change

The desperate search for an acceptable Republican Party presidential candidate continues. Republican leaders apparently are pushing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who previously said no, to jump into the race.

The GOP’s frustration is palpable. Mitt Romney has been running for four years but generates little enthusiasm. Rick Perry was an instant front-runner before losing much of his support after unimpressive debate performances. Michelle Bachmann briefly streaked across the political firmament but now barely registers in the polls. Newt Gingrich committed political seppuku shortly after announcing his candidacy. Ron Paul’s support is fervent but limited.

However, the real Republican problem is positions, not candidates.

The Republican Party cheerfully ran up the national debt before surrendering the keys to Capitol Hill and the White House. President George W. Bush’s promiscuous war-making cost the U.S. thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, while making Americans less secure. The GOP centralized more power in Washington. Republican lawmakers managed to turn laudable opposition to tax hikes into a deplorable defense of the status quo.

Most of the GOP presidential candidates offer little new. Mitt Romney, the ultimate political weathervane, implemented ObamaCare in Massachusetts before there was ObamaCare. He now fervently defends Social Security, despite its design as a public Ponzi scheme. Gov. Perry talks of domestic budget cuts but on foreign policy appears to be Bush-lite, yet another hawk disconnected from reality. The sharpest dissent from big government conservatism comes from the candidates least likely to win the nomination: Rep. Paul, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who has been excluded from most of the debates.

President Barack Obama obviously is vulnerable, as well he should be. The problem is not that he is responsible for all of America’s economic woes — no president “runs” the $15 trillion U.S. economy. But this president has no solution for slow growth and high unemployment other than spending more money, increasing the deficit, and running up the debt.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, simply denouncing President Obama for every ill known to man may not lead to victory. Voters dislike much current GOP orthodoxy. President Obama could win an election which turns into competitive political demonization and personal destruction.

Republicans should offer a positive agenda while addressing the party’s past failings. First, they should explain that current budget policy is unsustainable on both a short- and a long-term basis. Economist Larry Kotlikoff figures that America’s real public debt is $211 trillion, 15 times the nominal national debt. Public finance in states like California already looks a lot like that in Greece.

Unless Americans want to turn their entire incomes over to government, public spending must be cut, and cut sharply. And it must be cut across-the-board.

However, to regain lost credibility GOP politicians should lead with proposals to cut spending benefiting “their” interest groups. Corporate welfare should top any Republican Party list of budget cuts. Too often Republican apparatchiks have been pro-business rather than pro-free market, attacking financial transfers to the poor while endorsing subsidies for corporate America.

The GOP also needs to support significant reductions in military outlays. There is no more important responsibility for the U.S. government than protecting America. However, most of the Pentagon’s current activities have little to do with protecting America.

Instead, most U.S. forces currently defend prosperous, populous allies around the world. Europe has a larger GDP and population than America, yet continues to rely on Washington to provide most of NATO’s combat capability. Japan long had the world’s second largest economy but nevertheless relied on America for its protection. South Korea has 40 times the GDP of its northern adversary, but nearly 30,000 U.S. military personnel remain in the South, creating a “tripwire” for war.

Equally wasteful and far more costly in human terms have been nation-building exercises in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and more. Going to war in 2001 to punish the Taliban for hosting terrorist training camps made sense. Staying at war a decade later in an attempt to create a competent, honest centralized government in Kabul is foolish.

Also required is an honest discussion of Social Security’s and Medicare’s funding crises. Neither is financially sustainable and both risk triggering generational conflict. The longer Congress puts off addressing these issues the costlier will be any solution.

The GOP should reaffirm its opposition to tax hikes, but emphasize that taxes can be kept low only if outlays are reduced. Endless borrowing threatens a financial death spiral of increased debt, higher interest payments, slower economic growth, and lower investor confidence. The U.S. now is on the road to fiscal ruin.

Moreover, Republicans should endorse President Obama’s attack on special interest tax breaks. Not all tax preferences are equally bad, but the narrower the tax break the more it approaches a special interest subsidy. The GOP should push legislation that simultaneously kills dubious tax “loopholes” and reduces overall marginal tax rates. Republicans should similarly respond to tax proposals from President Obama or congressional Democrats. Rather than defend the undefendable, the GOP should challenge yet another form of corporate welfare.

With job creation at issue, Republicans should develop a list of regulations and taxes which interfere with a growing economy. Political candidates enjoy denouncing “over-regulation” in the abstract, but they would be more convincing if they targeted specific policies costing real jobs. The House GOP should follow the example of its earlier majority which held hearings on regulatory abuses.

Republicans should challenge politically popular public agencies. For instance, the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were at the epicenter of the housing and financial crises. The GOP rightly criticized Democrats for not including the two GSEs in last year’s financial “reform” bill. But so far House Republicans have done nothing to close Fannie and Freddie, which continue to lose money.

Deregulation should include proposals to make more market friendly controls which are necessary even in a free society. After all, few Americans want to breathe dirty air or swim in dirty water. And there is no simple market solution to such problems. But people don’t want to needlessly waste money and destroy jobs when cleaning up the environment.

The Republicans also should offer a more restrained foreign policy. Doing so is necessary to curtail military outlays — in effect, the defense budget is the price of a nation’s foreign policy, since the more Washington seeks to do in the world, the more military force it requires. So long as the U.S. government is determined to dominate every region of the globe against every power, it will have to spend as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. Indeed, real, inflation-adjusted military outlays have doubled over the last decade, and today are higher than at any point during the Cold War, Korean War, and Vietnam War.

But a more humble foreign policy also would be a better foreign policy. Rather than engage in social engineering abroad, Republican politicians should leave friendly states with responsibility for international problems. If there is a problem in the Balkans or North Africa, Europe should address it. Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other democratic nations should cooperate to restrain potential Chinese aggressiveness. Only the Afghans can create a sustainable political order, of whatever form, in Afghanistan.

The GOP should simultaneously support a globally engaged America and Americans. For instance, international cooperation can help meet humanitarian, environmental, and other problems which transcend national boundaries. Whatever U.S. policy toward illegal aliens, Americans should expand the legal immigration of entrepreneurial professionals.

Trade benefits Americans. Washington’s failure to ratify the free trade agreement with South Korea is beyond foolish. A commercial war with China would hurt Americans while poisoning the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.

Other issues also deserve attention — such as expanding educational opportunities for children stuck in poorly performing public schools. Even here, however, the GOP needs to break with recent Republican Party orthodoxy. President Bush and the Republican Congress centralized even more authority in Washington with the “No Child Left Behind” legislation.

Perhaps Chris Christie or some other late electoral entrant will revolutionize the GOP presidential sweepstakes. But without good ideas well-expressed, the GOP could still end up outside the White House looking in. The Republican Party deserves to win in 2012 only if it recognizes that it deserved to lose in 2008.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon).