Desperately Seeking an Agenda


When Republicans abandon their conservative/libertarian bloc of voters, they don't expand their base, it evaporates. The political graveyard is full of contemporary examples. Gerald Ford. George Bush. Bob Dole. The Republicans in Congress in 1998. All retreated from the tax cutting/limited government theme of the GOP and got punished at the polls.

Undeterred by history, Republican campaign strategists want to dust off thisplaybook one more time for campaign 2000. It will almost assuredly yieldthe same unhappy returns.

I recently asked a leading Republican consultant what the overriding themeswill likely be in this November's congressional elections. What will driveimpassioned voters to the polls? The answer: money and moderation. Money:raise as much of it as possible. Moderation: run to the 50-yard line on thepolitical playing field and camp out there.

The GOP's uninspiring "to do" list reflects this attitude. SenateRepublicans now have the following priorities for 2000: increasing the 1997budget caps, spending a lot more on education, expanding Medicare coverage,retiring the national debt, "saving Social Security" and raising the minimumwage. Clinton and Gore could and should sue the GOP for plagiarism.Meanwhile, tax reform, Social Security privatization and elimination offederal programs have all been elbowed off the negotiating table.

John McCain's improbable upsets of Bush in some early primaries -- carryingessentially a Democratic message -- is unquestionably one driving forcebehind this new tactic of making nice with big government. McCain'scapacity to attract independent-minded "Perotista" voters, and even someconservative Democrats, has GOP leaders salivating like frat boys watchingscantily clad Jennifer Lopez saunter onto the stage during the Grammys.

Seemingly, every talking head in Washington agrees that voters -- evenRepublican voters -- don't want tax cuts and don't want "risky schemes" forSocial Security. Former Clinton Democratic political guru Paul Begalarecently dismissed tax cuts as "so 1980s-ish." And so it is that, to holdon to the House and Senate, the Republican brain trust -- and rumor has itthat there really is one -- has decreed that Reagan tax cuts are out.Eisenhower debt retirement is in.

Not so fast. A just-released Zogby poll of 1,000 registered Republicanvoters suggests that this is a dingbat strategy. The poll, sponsored by theClub for Growth, should be read and memorized by every GOP office-seeker.The results verify the lessons of recent history: if the GOP de-emphasizesits core cluster of growth issues, its conservative base will tune out andstay home.

One question asked: How likely would you be to turn out to vote in the 2000elections if the Republican congressional candidate supported simplifyingthe current IRS tax system? Eighty-two percent responded "very likely"; 11percent, "somewhat likely." Only 3 percent said "not likely."

A second question asked: How likely would you be to turn out to vote in the2000 elections if the Republican congressional candidates supported allowingworkers to place some or all of their payroll tax dollars in an individualretirement account?

Two-thirds said they would be "very likely" to turn out to vote for thecandidate. Only 7 percent said "not likely."

Here's the problem. When was the last time Republicans spoke about the flattax? The national sales tax? Why, after five years of GOP control ofCongress, has the idea of allowing workers to place at least a portion ofpayroll tax dollars in personal IRAs not even come up for a vote? Someoneneeds to knock Trent Lott's and Denny Hastert's heads together and remindthem that a Social Security "lock box" is a clever gimmick but no substitutefor a privately owned, fully funded retirement system. Similarly,eliminating the marriage penalty is a nice start, but it doesn't make thetax code any less convoluted and it doesn't get the IRS out of our face.

The 1998 elections were a debacle for Republicans primarily because, afterCongress spent months busting the bank on the budget for bloated highwaybills and Clintonite social programs, dispirited conservative andlibertarian Republican voters had no compelling motivation to go to thepolls. And so they didn't. The GOP actually lost the vote of Americanswith incomes of more than $75,000 a year. Predicted GOP gains vaporized andGOP majorities narrowed some more.

Given the widespread mood of voter contentment around the country, the GOPmay not be able to win with its traditional pro-growth, anti-big governmentagenda. But the Club for Growth poll indicates they don't have a snowball'schance in hell of winning without it.