I have been thinking quite a bit since the election on how the Republican Party can reposition, or re-brand, or re-something itself to return to electoral success. Within the last week I realized that the answer has been on display since the beginning of the year. It’s simple. Promise to do what our current President has utterly failed to do: govern.
This failure to govern has been most evident in the farcical demonstration that passed for negotiations about the dreaded spending sequester. Having just won a hard-fought battle over tax increases that averted the Fiscal Cliff at year-end, President Obama came back to the table in the recent discussions demanding something he knew was a deal-breaker: more taxes.
And rather than use that opening bid as a bargaining chip with the House, he took to the road and campaigned. In rally after rally, he described the fiscal havoc that would ensue if the across-the-board spending cuts occurred, and excoriated the Republicans – with whom he supposedly intended to deal – over their unwillingness to raise taxes, even while the ink on the other tax increase was still drying.
One suspects that the President thought he had a win-win deal going: either the Republicans caved again on taxes, which would unleash a civil war within the party and usher in a decade of left-liberal dominance in Washington; or they would refuse to deal, in which case he could blame any subsequent economic pain from the sequester on them and work to return an unassailable Democratic majority in 2014. Either he gets a deal on his terms, or he gets no deal and it’s their fault. The latter suggestion gains credence when one considers that the Republicans proposed giving the President unprecedented authority to direct the sequester cuts to areas that would harm the economy least, and Obama promised to veto it.
So it’s all politics, with the dire financial position of the country, and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of American workers, used as pawns in Mr. Obama’s game.
But the lack of leadership goes beyond the failed sequester negotiations. Since at least 2010, our fiscal deliberations have been characterized by an unending series of crises, threats, and last-minute half-deals instead of sober, stable, policy-making. It’s a hell of a way to run a country. And it’s not just the President: the Democratic-controlled Senate has not passed a budget – something they are obligated to do by law – in four years. Four years of running the country without a budget, without a blueprint for the managing of the federal enterprise, and in the midst of serial trillion-dollar deficits – no wonder the economy is limping along like a wounded cow.
This came to mind this weekend, when I watched Mitt Romney and his wife Ann give their first post-election interview on Fox News Sunday (something, by the way, to which the New York Times, supposedly publisher of “all the news that’s fit to print”, failed to devote even one word). And I thought, “is it even conceivable that a President Romney would allow the very fiscal skeleton of the country to stagger from one crisis to the next?
Whatever his other faults, Romney is a deal-maker. He proved it in both government and private business. He would realize that a partially-satisfactory deal is far superior to a wholly-unsatisfactory non-deal that only defers the problem to a later and less-opportune moment. And so he would craft the best deal he could, picking off as many individual Democratic legislators as he could persuade, get legislation passed, and then move on. And he would develop that all-important aura for a President – a winner.
Obviously, the GOP is not going to fall in behind Romney as their standard-bearer for the next cycle. But they don’t have to. There is a wealth of talent among Republican state governors who have done much the same thing – governed. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and more – all of them to a greater or lesser degree have pursued classic conservative principles to resolve intractable problems. Meanwhile, Democratic-controlled states like California and my own sorry Illinois meet their problems with higher taxes and increased out-migration.
I would like to see the GOP put a program of principles behind this promise to govern. We will lose if we continue to be seen as the party that taketh away, whether it is on spending, acceptance of immigrants, or other social “rights.” But we don’t need to be. There is a powerful argument to be made that the current path of spending and deficits is not only not sustainable but is deeply immoral – we are robbing our children and grandchildren to make our own lives easier.
We need to be unabashedly the party of freedom and free markets, and not be apologetic about it. Markets are the best way to apportion scarce resources; when government does it, it leads to many pathologies, inefficiency and waste being just the beginning. The more a government inserts itself into the economy, the more businesses will thrive based on their access rather than their products or service. Their lobbyists will assist in the writing of regulations, which will end up protecting the established, connected interests and keeping out the upstarts. Obama’s expansion of government and increased regulation leads inevitably to this kind of crony capitalism, which is at its heart corrupt.
Regulation is necessary – but the more detailed the regulations are the more loopholes will be found and the more they can be manipulated. Regulations should be simpler and results- rather than process-oriented. Regulation is like a weight on the economy; the lighter the weight, the greater the prosperity. Finding that balance should be the principal job of regulators.
Similarly, the environment needs protection. Republicans don’t favor dirty water any more than do true-blue liberals. But we should be clear that environmental protections have costs, and those costs need to be recognized. When a conflict arises between the next snail darter and prosperity, we should vow always to take the side of prosperity.
Above all, Republicans should be the party for all Americans who aspire. We have been unfairly tagged as the friends of the moneyed interests – and in today’s political economy, that’s likely to be the crony capitalists. We should be as opposed to that as we are to big government, promising to clear away plodding government and its restrictions as well as the big-money players who tilt the playing field in their own favor. Neither are in tune with the principles of a true conservative.
If we promise to govern, and to govern by affirming principles such as these, we should be able to get people to listen. If we can get the New York Times to print it.