Political Hay

Steadying the Ranks

GOP must focus on the Big Issues.

By 12.9.08

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With a Republican victory in the Georgia Senate run-off, the GOP ranks appear to be steadying after a traumatic election season that obliterated the party of Lincoln among independent and younger voters, and completely wiped it out in New England with respect to House seats at least.

A truly providential victory was that of Senator Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, who, as David Frum correctly noted, leads the Senate Republican caucus, the most important institution of government from the standpoint of conservative and Republican interests -- not that they are always identical. McConnell is a master parliamentarian and, when the need arises, an effective obstructionist to any legislative initiative not to his liking. And I say that with the greatest respect, from the perspective of a Madisonian.

While its success may be a fleeting thing, congressional Republican resistance to an unfettered, expansive bailout of the Big Three auto companies, backed up by the White House, was a momentary glimpse of an effective effort at principled opposition to the current Zeitgeist. Such opportunities will be few and far between in the next Congress.

So what is the GOP minority to do for the next two years until the mid-term elections present an opportunity to increase its traction? Certainly, playing solid defense is as important in politics as it is in college basketball; and Senator McConnell is superb at that aspect of the game. It is likely that defending the right to life of the unborn is one area where the GOP will have to put these skills to work given the new administration's announced support for the Freedom of Choice Act, which would nullify laws limiting abortion, including bans on partial birth abortion; mandate funding of abortion, eliminate even minimalist regulation; and threaten the rights of conscience of health care workers.

But ultimately, you have to get on the scoreboard to win the game. Republican strategists need to think offensively. They need to get back to serious ideas and truly Big Issues.

Republican legislators need to pick two or three really Big Issues and energetically pursue them in the new Congress and with the Obama administration and the broader public. They should promote solutions to serious problems for the benefit of the nation. This sounds hopelessly idealistic, but it is also a pragmatic requirement for restoring the Republican Party's credibility, especially with independent and younger voters who seem, for now, lost to the cause of right-of-center governance.

Setting aside social and environmental issues, policy areas where Barack Obama has not yet shown his cards, the president-elect's choices for economic and national security positions are downright centrist and extremely competent. This may be a hopeful sign that the GOP might be able to find some common ground without rolling over on fundamental issues of principle.

It seems that the GOP will likely go along with a major stimulus package, which even free market libertarians such as Bruce Bartlett concede is needed in the circumstances. Let's face it, the Hill Republicans should have balanced the budgets during the good times, but they did not even come close. But the resulting bulge in deficits and debt will make even more urgent serious thinking about the long-term restructuring of the federal budget, most notably, the crushing liabilities accruing for entitlement obligations, and a shift in our system of taxation away from penalizing wealth creation, income and productivity. As enlightened GOP leaders such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) understand, these issues must be dealt with in tandem. There're two new Big Issues just in one paragraph.

A number of conservative reformers have called for greater attention to middle-class and working-class fears and insecurities in the area of health care and adaptation to uncertain economic times. This writer can certainly understand the concern with health care. His two daughters just moved into the job market without health insurance coverage during months of transitioning to new jobs. It keeps you up at night. That's another pair of Big Issues Health care may be an issue on which the Republicans will have to play offense and defense simultaneously, resisting bad policies but keeping the faith of sound policy in the future.

Protecting the nation from non-state actors and terrorists is still a pressing task in the post-9/11 world. Hence, a renewed focus on doing whatever it takes to control nuclear weapons rattling around the old Soviet Union, as well as other biological and radioactive materials around the world, is one of the greatest priorities for America, Republicans and Democrats alike. Indeed, the paramount nature of this challenge, including that of a nuclear-armed Iran, will necessitate a renewed and sustained effort to engage Putin's Russia whether or not we detest his regime. The truth of the matter is that we need Russia on board for achieving greater security gains on this front. There's a fifth one.

Whatever they are, and I would certainly hope that at least some of the preceding suggestions would make the cut, the GOP needs a short list of policy priorities. Then it can molt its old skin of self-serving corruption and reclaim its brand as a serious force for sound policy and conservative principles of governance even if it does not yield immediate legislative victories, an unlikely prospect for the immediate future.

A sharp and unrelenting focus on a few, high-priority Big Issues is everything. Forget about that weird Chicago pastor and that horrible person from the '60s. Speak to the real-world concerns of middle-class Americans with integrity, verve, and imagination.

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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.