Commentary

The Republicans Lose Their Principles

This article originally appeared in the Financial Times on October 1, 2002.
As it heads into November’s mid-term congressional elections with its domestic agenda in shambles, the Republican party’s hopes of maintaining control of the House of Representatives and regaining a majority in the Senate appear to hinge on public support for President George W. Bush’s conduct of the war against terrorism.

With control of both houses of Congress up for grabs, Democrats are frustrated that they cannot bring domestic issues - from which Republicans wish to duck and hide - to the fore when all the news is about possible war with Iraq or the next capture of a high-ranking al-Qaeda functionary.

The curious aspect of this dynamic is that, by all logic, the Grand Old Party should have the initiative on domestic policy. On issues ranging from school choice to Social Security privatisation, polls show Americans strongly supporting what have traditionally been Republican perspectives. Even basic questions on the size of government show a majority of Americans would rather have fewer government services and lower taxes than the opposite. So why is the public perception that the GOP’s approach to domestic issues is unclear and unprincipled? The GOP resurgence, which began with tax revolts in the late 1970s and was further fuelled by President Ronald Reagan’s principled call for less government in the 1980s, was built on a foundation of new ideas. Social scientist Charles Murray’s book Losing Ground shook the welfare establishment by demonstrating the social pathologies of dependency. Supply-side economists laid out empirical evidence that cuts in the marginal rate of taxation clearly spurred economic growth.

All of this laid the basis for strong political support for a smaller government agenda. But when the Republicans took control of the House and Senate in 1994, Newt Gingrich, the party’s strategist and tactician, was outmaneuvered on policy issues by President Bill Clinton. The GOP zeroed in on scandal rather than ideas and the energy that left the “revolution” was palpable. The poor showing by the Republicans in the congressional elections of 1996 was followed by the debacle of the presidential nomination of Senator Bob Dole, whose farewell speech on the Senate floor consisted of little more than a litany of big government programmes he had supported over the years.

Steve Forbes, a sincere but ineffective candidate, tried to redirect Republicans back to being a party of ideas in the 2000 primaries. But the GOP establishment was behind George W. Bush, who campaigned on an apologetic theme of “compassionate conservatism”. That turned out to have little in common with the party of Mr Reagan. Mr Bush campaigned for the greatest federal role in education that any president, Republican or Democrat, had in US history. Never mind that just 20 years before, Mr Reagan had won a landslide victory on a platform that called for the abolition of the Department of Education.

More was to come. Mr Bush pushed for a “faith-based initiative” that would involve the federal government in funding private, religious charities. This represented a major new federal involvement in civil society, while undermining the constitutional separation of church and state and ignoring the inevitable undue government control of previously successful charities. Lacking limited government principles, the Bush administration responded to the closeness of the 2000 presidential election by providing the steel-producing states of West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania with 30 per cent tariffs on imported steel. Mr Bush had asked Americans to vote for him in part because he said he was a free trader opposed to protectionism.

The recently passed Republican sponsored farm bill provides a cool Dollars 170bn (Pounds 108bn) in corporate welfare to agribusiness to shore up support from Midwest farm states. This, after the much ballyhooed GOP “Freedom to Farm” bill of 1996 that was going to phase out such subsidies by 2003. So it goes on. Republican National Committee fundraising letters now speak of the need to “reform the way government is run”, as if that means anything. The ideas of reducing government and freeing Americans from the intrusions of government are no longer part of the agenda.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is the issue of Social Security reform. One of the few initiatives that Mr Bush has put forward that would reduce the government’s domestic role is the idea of allowing at least partial privatisation of Social Security. A Zogby International poll conducted this summer shows that, despite corporate malfeasance and declining stock prices, 68 per cent of Americans favour some form of Social Security privatisation. Yet the Republicans in Congress, their incumbency protected by campaign finance restrictions and computer-designed district borders, are loath to consider anything that might prove controversial. A typical Republican stance is the statement of John Swallow, the GOP candidate in the second congressional district in Utah, who has said: “Democrats across the nation are touting that Republicans want to ‘privatise’ Social Security. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The truth is, Republicans do not want to do much of anything, other than retain political power. That separates them from Democrats who do, in fact, have an agenda they want to pursue - one that would have the tendrils of government reaching into every corner of civil society. Until the GOP rediscovers its principles - and the fact that most Americans share them - its prospects for the mid-term elections depend almost entirely on international affairs.

Mr. Crane is president of the Cato Institute.