Another Perspective

What Would a New Era of Republican Governance Bring?

Being careful about what we are wishing for.

By 8.18.09

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Republicans are beginning to get excited. Record levels of spending and debt, deficits overwhelming a shrinking economy, and Obamacare are creating tremendous downward pressure on the Democrats and their falling poll numbers.

Some pundits are already raising the possibility, remote though it be, of the pachyderms retaking Congress.

Gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey are looking very promising for the Republican candidates, despite a recent bump for the incumbent Democrat in the latest polling in the Garden State.

Even in our local race for the Virginia House of Delegates, in the heart of a very deep-blue Fairfax County, a Washington, D.C. suburb, purged of Republican officeholders, the GOP candidate has a 7 percent lead against his opponent.

Notwithstanding our current preoccupation with the spectacle of runaway government, taxes, spending and debt, unbridled social liberalism and two persistent military engagements abroad, all now owned by the current Democratic regime, would it be too premature to ask what a new era of Republican governance would mean for America?

The previous eight years, during which the GOP controlled the executive, legislative and the judicial branches of government were a mixed bag.

On taxes and federal judicial appointments, both Congress and the White House get top marks. However, their transformation of a budget surplus into a trillion dollar deficit, their contribution to the nation's cumulative debt load through the passage of a new, huge entitlement for prescription drugs, and their abject failure to do anything to reform entitlements, the Death Star looming over the America, merit them failing grades. Add to these their support of tariffs on steel, a monstrosity of a Farm Bill and ethanol subsidies for an inefficient energy source with negative consequences for food prices and the environment. It isn't a pretty picture of right-of-center governance.

Other areas for a Republican examination of conscience are ethics, public and personal, and foreign and military policy. I will not flog the obvious case of earmarking and its corrupting influence on the body politic, but what, pray tell, was the difference between Democrats and Republicans on this issue, other than the Republicans under Tom DeLay et al. took it to even greater lengths of abuse than ever before?

High marks to Senators McCain and Coburn and Congressman Jeff Flake for resisting these abuses, but they were voices crying in the wilderness. Will the GOP change its ways once in power? Why not start now?

Add to these public sins, the personal ones of Foley, Abramoff, Ney, Cunningham, Sanford and a host of others. True, Democrats have their black sheep, but this is not a contest over which the GOP should strive for parity much less superiority.

More difficult subjects are foreign and military policy, as opposed to homeland security, a clear success for the Bush administration, given that American has been spared any terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001.

Without undertaking a tedious discussion of what went right and what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan, clearly the Republican party has tilted towards some form of Wilsonian interventionism and an extremely aggressive approach to spreading democracy and nation-building. Clearly, the GOP is in a very different place post-9/11. Moreover, this up-tempo, interventionist approach to foreign and military policy was followed by the Great Recession of 2008 which has not been fully factored into America's geostrategic calculations, going forward, due to our immersion in two wars, both very much open-ended and far from over, which makes long-range strategic thinking very difficult.

One wonders if either the GOP or the Obama administration appreciates the relationship between a robust economy and a strong national defense, much less a national offense. How sustainable is our current military program? The answer to this question is closely tied to an overall assessment of our debt-ridden, entitlement-dominated, high-tax economy many years into the future.

I would not presume to answer all of these questions. No doubt, they will get answered, variously, in numerous primary and general elections over the next few election cycles. They are questions well worth exploring, explicitly and transparently, in the days ahead. To give just one example, take the fierce and very necessary GOP opposition to Obamacare. This is a true budget-buster and statist response to the challenge of affordable and accessible healthcare. That said, Ross Douthat, that brave conservative who writes for the New York Times, and one of the more creative policy thinkers on the right side of the political spectrum, has offered a thoughtful critique of the way in which Congressional Republicans are framing their opposition to the Democratic proposals.

Douthat notes that senior citizen opposition to Obamacare, which is driving the plans plunge in popular support in polls, is primarily grounded in their opposition to cost-cutting to allow for an expansion of coverage. This puts the Democrats at a tremendous disadvantage "and the Republicans have noticed," says Douthat. This is a much more potent political line of attack than simply criticizing the proposals' high cost, negative impact on innovation and the likelihood of Obama's public-option plan encouraging employers to drop coverage and put the costs on taxpayers.

"That's why Republicans find themselves tiptoeing into an unfamiliar role-champions of old-age entitlements," says Douthat. "The Democrats are 'sticking it to seniors with cuts to Medicare,' Mitch McConnell [Republican Minority Leader] declared. They want to 'cannibalize' the program to pay for reform, John Cornyn [Republican Senator from Texas] complained. It's a 'raid,' Sam Brownback [Republican Senator from Kansas] warned, that could result in the elderly losing 'necessary care.'"

Douthat understands why Republicans, "after decades of being demagogued for proposing even modest entitlement reforms," would enjoy turning of the tables on the Democrats. "But this is a perilous strategy for the right."

Medicare costs are spiraling out of control and, ultimately, "will make a mockery of the idea of limited government. For conservatives, no fiscal cause is more important than curbing this exponential growth," says Douthat. "And by fighting health care reform with tactics ripped from the Democratic playbooks, and enlisting anxious seniors as foot soldiers, conservatives are setting themselves up to win the battle and lose the longer war." For now, "the country suddenly has two political parties devoted to Mediscaring seniors-which in turn seems likely to make the program more untouchable than ever."

"And if you think reform is tough today, just wait," warns Douthat. "We're already practically a gerontocracy: Americans over 50 cast over 40 percent of the votes in the 2008 elections, and half the votes in the '06 midterms." By 2030, there will be more Americans 65 than under 18. Thus, "the power of the elderly and nearly elderly may become almost absolute."

A lot of Douthat's criticism involves the use and abuse of political rhetoric. But words express ideas, and ideas have consequences. The words coming out of many Republican legislators express the same ideas which gave us their prior unfunded entitlement mandate in the form of the prescription drug benefit.

Now is the time to start talking about the ideas, the principles and the goals of the Republican Party. Republicans need an honest conversation amongst themselves as to what a second coming of Republican governance will really mean in terms of policies, both at home and abroad. The party's founder, Abraham Lincoln, spent his wilderness years thinking and talking through his vision of his party and his nation. That would be a good precedent to keep in mind.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.