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The Party’s Over

Alexander Del Nido

In May 2004, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington D.C., held a conference on the legacy of the ten years of Republican Party control of Congress since 1994. Past leaders of the so-called “Republican Revolution” of that year were asked to speak on the accomplishments of the last ten years and on the future of the Republican Party in Washington. Figures such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey gave their opinions on the state of the GOP today, and the outlook was bleak; the party has “traded in ideology for interest groups,” said Gingrich. The GOP has begun “doing the wrong things so we can get re-elected,” concurred Armey.

Though we won’t hear them so close to the coming elections, a growing chorus of Republicans in and out of Washington are raising concerns over the trend the party has taken since the late 1990’s; even the paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan has warned of a coming “civil war” for the party’s soul. This GOP introspection has been prompted by the fact that the party has been in control of all three branches of the federal government and the majority of state legislatures and governorships for four years, and yet it is very far from certain that the country is better off for it. Diehard GOP partisans like Karl Rove and Dennis Hastert like to say that theirs is a new “permanent majority” party, but this sunny view of a perpetually red America ignores the rust spreading on the GOP armor. For example, when the House adjourned at the end of the summer it could not even pass a budget for the year 2005 due to squabbles among Republicans. Fifty-two percent of the American people now disapprove of the job Congress has been doing, up from 40 percent before 2001. Recent polls show that the American public thinks John Kerry and the Democrats have better plans to deal with every single important domestic issue except taxes, a traditional GOP strong suit, and even on taxes the Republican support is slim.

The battle within the Republican Party, as the Washington Monthly put it, is between the “small-government conservatives” like Gingrich, who want to return to the stringent spending of 1980 and 1994, and the more moderate reform conservatives like John McCain, who looks back to the governing style of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. However, while looking back for a solution to their problem may end up helping in the long term, today, despite its seemingly-monolithic power, the GOP lacks a coherent ideology, confuses special interests with the interests of the whole country, and like the Democrats of the 1970’s and 1980’s, is heading into decline.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s proposals for tax cuts, minimal government spending, and smaller government made sense after an era of ruinous runaway spending. For years, Democrats had held together an increasingly fractious coalition under the banner that government could solve all problems. By 1980, Americans had outgrown this view. Now, the Republicans are very much like those Democrats of the 1970’s; their uneasy factions have coalesced around a policy of further permanent tax cuts, while the exact opposite is needed in order to deal with the two biggest problems facing the country in the next ten years -- the threat of terrorism, and the explosion of Medicare and Social Security costs that will come with the retirement of the baby boomer generation.

Further cause for concern is that despite the party’s control of Washington, its accomplishments have been meager. The Bush tax cut has produced only a feeble economic recovery, the Medicare reform bill is so generous towards the pharmaceutical industry that only 25 percent of senior citizens support it, and the energy policy was drafted by oil executives and yielded nothing except skyrocketing gas and oil prices. The GOP is so wedded to its special interest supporters that it cannot stop itself from passing policies that do not advance the interests of everyone else -- meanwhile, the voters are defecting in the polls to support Democrats over Republicans on these domestic issues.

A change in the GOP is possible, though not terribly likely -- the moderate David Brooks wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine that the party would sustain its “permanent majority” and, more importantly, would govern the country better, if it adopted a platform of “progressive conservatism”; the GOP should abandon the “big government is the enemy” mantra of the Reagan years, and instead use somewhat bigger government and higher taxes to reform entitlement programs and balance the budget. However, without a Bush defeat in November, it’s unlikely that Republican leaders will wake up and realize that they have to change their practices for the sake of the country they control. Bill Clinton managed to drag the Democratic party to the center of the ideological spectrum only after three successive presidential defeats and the loss of control of Congress -- if the GOP wants to continue to be America’s “permanent majority” party, maybe they should take a few lessons from the former President, once derided as “Slick Willie.”