If Republicans are able to regain some measure of power in 2010—an increasingly likely possibility—their victory will, discount as of this moment, be due less to Republican policy successes and more to a fantastic display of self-immolation on the part of their Democratic rivals.
The tactics of opposition, however, are not a substitute for a forward-looking policy portfolio. Running as the not-Democrat may be, at the moment, an effective electoral tool, but it need not be an effective political one in the long term. Democrats ran very effectively against George W. Bush in 2006 and 2008, yet they now seem to have hit the rough waters of actual governance. It was in part the policies of the 2000s that set the stage for the GOP’s electoral drubbings in 2006 and 2008.
Whether or not Republicans are able to take control of Congress and the presidency again in the next few electoral cycles, they will need a new policy regime. This policy regime will have to confront political on-the-ground realities. It will also need to have realistic expectations. Pie-in-the-sky dreams often prove a fragile foundation indeed for a political program.
It is probably not enough to govern as a party pledging to roll back the policies of the Obama administration. Even if these policies are rolled back, the rolling back will not solve the underlying problems that these policies were created to solve. Focusing merely on the repeal of the leftist agenda also risks surrendering policy direction to the left, allowing it to define the debate. If the right wants to run something other than a gradual retreat from leftist ideology, it will need to change the terms of political discourse.
These are some points toward a rhetorical reform of the GOP agenda. These points are not meant to be a total system but instead suggestions in the direction of a political rethinking of the GOP’s purpose.
End the bad faith libertarianism. This is not a criticism of libertarianism as such, but the GOP can no longer run as the party that says with its lips that it will reduce the size of government while its hand signs into existence huge expansions of government. The hypocrisy is made worse by a kind of policy schizophrenia, in which anti-government thinking is erratically applied. So we have No Child Left Behind and managerial incompetence, government subsidizing of inflated mortgages and non-regulation of much of the financial markets. This schizophrenia—loving tax cuts and spending hikes—is a recipe for fiscal disaster.
Realize that the government is not always the enemy. Relentless unfocused ranting against the government misses one of the key selling points of liberal democracy: having a government that is aligned with the principles of human freedom (very different from no government). Reagan’s statement that, “[i]n the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” shows a fine balance of particular circumstance and liberal principle. It is not an enraged attack upon government itself but a precise critique of the actual practices of a particular governmental moment. Republican discourse about government needs to strive for that register. The American people, for all their complaints, do not hate the federal government, and Republicans, as their political practice shows, aren’t exactly opposed to it either. If Republicans aren’t going to drown the government in the bathtub, they should work for a government that is efficient, appropriately limited, and credible.
Reinforce the civic compact. Our sense of civic togetherness has taken a beating since the 2000 election; a shoot of common fellowship after 9/11 soon withered before a burst of almost pathological anxiety, social alienation, partisan cynicism, and civic despair. Americans may have hoped for a return to a civil fellowship in the election of Barack Obama, who supposedly promised a transcendence of the old culture war antagonisms. They seem to have gotten instead just a further radicalization of them. Republicans should take the lead in working to restore a sense of civic exchange. The kind of sacrifices and changes that may be necessary in order to restore some level of fiscal and governmental sanity may only be able to occur in a society in which citizens feel somewhat on the same boat. Republicans should redirect the energies of the culture wars to craft a common space for dialogue and civic engagement. They should stand for an authentic multiculturalism of engagement, not a pretend (and all too common) “multiculturalism” of cultural antagonisms and the cynical exploitation of these antagonisms.
Become the party of sustainability. Since World War II, Republicans have often been the voice for sustainability for the government: think of Eisenhower’s fiscal sobriety, the post-1968 emphasis on law and order, and Reaganite policies to reform the welfare state. Unfortunately, over the past decade, we have witnessed an indifference to sustainability in the pursuit of temporary partisan gains (borrowing policies that would make an addict drool, reckless expansions of government programs, etc.). Republicans need to step forward to make sure that our entitlement programs remain sustainable and more effective. This includes market-oriented health-care reform as well as a serious eye to new spending.
Embrace a common prosperity for individual enrichment. It can clearly be seen that the attempt to create the illusion of wealth through capacious borrowing (even as the advanced labor and manufacturing components of the economy are hollowed out) leads to a political and policy nightmare. Some have advocated using the power of government confiscation to cope with the growing economic inequalities of American society. Republicans should make the case for a free-market order that allows for economic upward mobility. This approach may demand a rethinking of trade deals and immigration policy, as well as the enforcement of labor laws. It might also offer an incentive for an investment in infrastructure, which provides a common foundation for individual achievements.
Know the virtues of freedom and federalism. In devising new solutions to new problems, the fifty states provide fifty different testing grounds. Federalist diffusion also allows for a moderating of hot-button issues. Freedom in civic discussions is in part its own reward, yet this freedom brings many other rewards, too—of satisfaction, prosperity, and independence.
Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party fought for freedom, federal legitimacy, and industrialization. The times are different, and the precise policies will change, but Republicans today would have much to gain by following in that legacy of liberty, civility, and opportunity.