Political Hay

The Recriminations Begin

Which way for the Republican Party after the election?

By 10.27.08

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The economic tsunami, which is washing away home values, stock portfolios, jobs and economic growth, may be the root cause of Senator John McCain's present electoral difficulties; but that is not inhibiting the round of recriminations within Republican and conservative circles.

The Arena on Politico's website offered a range of opinions on McCain's recent blast at the past eight years of Republican governance.

Saturday's New York Times ran a story relating arguments, back and forth, on whether or not the McCain campaign took Florida for granted by remaining silent on TV far too long.

There are also reports of sniping back and forth between the staffs of Senator McCain and Governor Palin. One of McCain's staffers unhelpfully called her a "Diva," which is the genteel form of the "B" word. You would hope that kind of snark would be left to MSNBC's on-air personalities.

And in Sunday's Washington Post, neoconservative commentator and former Bush speechwriter David Frum, citing grim polling data, the worst for the GOP since Watergate, recommended that the national party apparatus quit pouring money into McCain's futile effort, including his long-shot attempt to win Pennsylvania, and put that money into close U.S. Senate races. Given likely Democratic control of the White House, the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, argued Frum, the Republican Senate Caucus will be the only viable political institution which can fight a rearguard action or execute blocking maneuvers against the excesses sure to come.

Call this triage on the Potomac.

For political junkies this sort of Monday morning quarterbacking is great fun and is a relatively harmless way to pass the time, a bit like wondering what it would have been like if the Confederacy had won the Civil War or Hitler had occupied England. OK, but can't it wait until after the voters actually vote on Election Day?

But the more serious questions, both for the Republican Party and, more generally, the conservative movement, really extend to the last eight years as noted, quite rightly, by Senator McCain himself, the quintessential party maverick. There will be no replay of this miserable, late-breaking general election campaign; but there is all the time necessary, eight years, actually, to reflect on the matter of recovering core principles for right-of-center governance during the GOP's time in the political wilderness -- even if McCain can pull off another miracle. Republicans are still headed for catastrophe in the House and Senate.


THE QUESTION, simply stated, is: What is the future path of the GOP? Will it continue to support outrageous levels of domestic spending, unsustainable expansion of entitlement programs, and cascading debt, while fecklessly permitting the build-up of relentless pressure for higher taxes, which will stifle economic growth and job creation?

Will the GOP get a grip on itself, recover its historic identity, and reclaim the role of fiscal grown-up? This is a very difficult task for the party of Lincoln since it has, of late, supported high-spending, deficits, and mounting debt normally associated with Democratic policies. It is hard, maybe impossible, to argue for fiscal restraint during a recession. But it was unprecedented that Republicans would throw fiscal constraint to the wind during the good times just past.

In fact, Republican lawmakers will most certainly have to support deficit spending, i.e., a "stimulus package," until the economic bleeding stops. Everyone from Larry Kudlow to Robert Rubin seems to be on board for that kind of major tourniquet.

The indefensible Republican spending binge, soon to be followed by a defensible bipartisan one, could, to the extent that it becomes a permanent state similar to that persisting in European countries, lead to more government bureaucracy, higher taxes, a constricted private sector and much lower economic growth and job creation.

A permanently, relentlessly growing federal government will also undermine America's military strength, the third pillar of the old Reagan platform. Both traditional Reaganauts and neoconservatives need to understand that America's international standing and military strength are largely dependent on the nation's economic vitality.


THE MOST EGREGIOUS SIN of Republican governance, both in the executive and legislative branches of government, has been one of omission: the failure to reform entitlement spending, the Death Star looming over our economy and society. Over the long haul, this challenge dwarfs any concerns with the one-trillion dollar bailout package recently passed by Congress and signed by the President.

According to David M. Walker, former Comptroller General of the United States, "Social Security and Medicare alone are already underfunded by about $44 trillion [that's with a "t"] or $146,000 per American, in today's dollars, and this number is growing on autopilot every year by about $2 trillion, or $6,600 per American." Throw in interest payments on the debt, and such mandatory spending already consumes about half of the federal budget.

If there is any single issue, regarding which congressional Republicans should look for an honorable way of cooperating with either an Obama or McCain administration, consistent with fiscal probity and economic growth, this is it. It is a paramount issue of inter-generational equity that must be resolved if America is to avoid an inexorable drift toward becoming a Banana Republic. Moreover, progress on reducing or substantially restraining the growth of entitlement liabilities, over time, would compensate for any short-term economic problems resulting from needed spending to get us through the present crisis.

As bad as earmarks are, and blessings on Senator Coburn of Oklahoma as well as John McCain for standing against them, and as outrageous are such monstrosities as the Farm Bill, entitlement reform is truly the heart of the matter, the center of gravity in the battle for the ultimate character of the American polity. One wonders what the Republican White House and Congress were thinking when they passed the new drug entitlement bill a few years back. Well, now is the time to start thinking really, really hard.

The few bright spots on the horizon are reformers, such as Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who believe in low taxes but recognize the imperative of entitlement reform if we are not to bankrupt our children and grandchildren. Basically, they recognize that failure to address entitlements will make further tax reductions or reform nearly impossible.

Ryan in 2016?

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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.