Who Will Lead the GOP?

January 20, 1997 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Washington Times.

The race is on for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. As the de facto spokesman for the party, the RNC job carries immense clout in shaping and communicating the GOP’s message to the American voters. Haley Barbour has done this with great aplomb, helping mastermind the improbable Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

The RNC job now takes on special prominence because the party seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. Before any leader of the party can effectively deliver the GOP’s message, the party hierarchy need to determine what exactly the message is in the wake of Bill Clinton’s trouncing of Bob Dole.

There is a very real danger that the message will be mangled. A handful of moderate Republicans are now running for the RNC top spot with a Clintonian message of moving the GOP to the “sensible center.” For example, three leading contenders–Robert Bennett of Ohio, David Norcross of New Jersey, and John Herrington of California–all want to soften the party’s anti‐​big government, anti‐​tax, pro‐​life message. Retreating from any of these positions would, of course, alienate and infuriate the grass roots and almost certainly splinter the party–perhaps permanently.

One candidate who would almost certainly avoid this debacle is New Hampshire governor Steve Merrill. Merrill is not the only free‐​market conservative in the race, but he has one leg up on all the competition: he has a record to match his rhetoric. Out of a class of outstanding GOP governors, Merrill stands out above the rest. In the Cato Institute 1996 “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors,” which measures the fiscal conservatism off all the governors, prepared by Dean Stansel and myself, Gov. Merrill received a grade of “A.” (There’s no grade inflation at Cato: only three governors received an A.) In fact, Merrill is the only governor ever to earn an “A” twice on the report card–first in 1994 then this year.

Merrill has been a perfect fit as governor of the nation’s most tax‐​aphobic state. New Hampshire is the only state in the nation without a sales tax and an income tax, and Merrill has vigilantly protected that unique status by fending off relentless calls in the legislature (even by some Republicans) that one or the other is needed to fund education, roads, and other public services.

Remarkably, in a state with almost no taxes, Merrill has even found a way to cut them. In his first term, the tax burden per family dropped by $600 per family. He lowered the tax on business profits (from 8 to 7 percent), telecommunications, and real estate transfers, while eliminating the corporate franchise tax.

When first elected in 1992 New Hampshire’s economy was reeling from the deep regional collapse. Out of seven candidates for governor, he was the only one to declare that tax increases would be dead on arrival. Once elected, Merrill relied on spending restraint alone to balance the budget and help pull the state out of the recession in as solid condition as any of its neighbors. (The strong recovery in New Hampshire unwittingly aided the Clinton campaign in the state). His reforms in banking, education, welfare, and health care have all been consistently market based. On economic and fiscal policy, Merrill’s record has consistently excelled.

Merrill also has instant credibility on another issue that Republicans have consistently fumbled: term limits. The idea of wrestling political power in America away from professional politicians (in both parties) and returning it to true citizen legislators has immense populist appeal. For obvious reasons, the reform hasn’t received much more than lip‐​service support from the powers that be in the GOP. Merrill term limited himself–stepping down after two‐​two year terms–even though he was a cinch for re‐​election if he had sought it.

Merrill clearly has liabilities as well. His close and early association with the dreadful Dole campaign is hardly reassuring. Matt Rees of the Weekly Standard reports that Merrill is also hurt “in some circles by his failure to deliver his state for Bob Dole in the primary and by the fact that a Democrat was elected to succeed him.” (For the first time in years, the Democrat agreed to take the famous New Hampshire tax pledge.) Finally, many supply siders still haven’t forgiven Merrill for his ill‐​advised and ill‐​informed TV ads attacking Steve Forbes’ flat tax during the New Hampshire primaries.

All of this may cause some understandable discomfort to fiscal conservatives. But to his credit Merrill, has steered away from the popular, but wrong‐​headed “blame‐​conservatives‐​first” explanations for the Clinton victory. He rejects the idea that the limited government, anti‐​tax message has lost its traction with voters–a view increasingly spouted by the moderate wing of the party. “The problem in 1996 was the messenger, not the message,” says Merrill. “Tax and spending cuts are still absolutely critical to that message,” he insists.

For four years, Steve Merrill governed that way. His record conveys a conviction to the principle. What is worrisome is that so few of the other candidates for the RNC chairmanship share that conviction.

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