What the Republicans Have Forgotten
Toward the end of 1988, President Ronald Reagan attended a dinner in tribute to Jack Kemp, then retiring after sixteen years in the House of Representatives. Although Reagan himself was set to leave office just a few weeks later, he offered on this occasion no wistful remarks about the end of an era. To the contrary, his tone was typically Reaganesque: sunny, optimistic, forward-looking. “America’s greatest chapter,” the President reminded his audience, “is still to be written.”
The band of Reagan warriors gathered that evening had reason to feel giddy. A month earlier, George Bush had won a resounding victory in the presidential election. Conservatism, which had seemed so marginal through the 1970’s, was in the midst of a great rebirth, while everywhere liberals were in retreat; even Michael Dukakis, the Democrats’ presidential candidate, had shied away from using the word “liberal” in describing himself or his policies. Now the Reagan torch was being passed to a triumphant successor, and the stage seemed set for a shining and extended era of Republican governance.
Today, more than ten years later, things look rather different. Even as GOP leaders coalesce around their presumptive presidential nominee of 2000, George W. Bush, the exuberance and certainty that ran through the ranks a decade earlier are long gone. On taxes, foreign policy, defense spending, Social Security reform, immigration, and affirmative action, no consensus binds the party together. Indeed, on many of these issues there is only acrimony. The Reagan coalition of moderate Republicans, Christian activists, neoconservatives, and disaffected working-class and ethnic Democrats lies in tatters. Worse, what once seemed a great step forward now appears to many like an opportunity squandered.
Consider: Newt Gingrich rose like a meteor and then burned up, disappearing from the scene just before his own caucus could oust him as its leader. The “Contract with America,” the centerpiece legislation of the passionate congressional Republicans who noisily burst on the scene in the 1994 midterm elections, is but a dim memory, while those Congressmen themselves are in danger of losing their majority status. From without, the Reform party, taking advantage of the GOP’s fissures within, threatens still further setbacks in next year’s voting.
Of course, the picture is not entirely bleak. For nearly a year, respondents to a monthly Pew Research Survey, even while registering their disapproval of Republican leaders in Congress, have also said they prefer George W. Bush in a theoretical match-up against Vice President Al Gore. The apparent contradiction reminds us that the Republican party has indeed scored some real gains in this decade. In states that had long been Democratic strongholds, an active Republican presence has transformed the legislatures, and, in a similar turnaround, Republicans now hold a majority of the nation’s governorships. Nor is this all: the very language of American politics has changed. At every level of government, Democrats now mimic Republicans, talking about deficit reduction, individual responsibility, and the unintended consequences of social policy.
But for all that, the animating purpose of the Republican party is hard to detect. Even if George W. Bush should be nominated, and then go on to defeat the Democratic nominee in a general election, no one really knows what kind of Republican President he would be. More disturbing, few agree on what kind of Republican President he ought to be.
How did this happen? How did a party that ten years ago was focused, disciplined, and filled with the passion of ideas become fractured and directionless?
Two plausible explanations have been put forward. The first is that what held the 80’s coalition together was the cold war. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet totalitarianism, the unabashed nationalism that had fueled the Reagan revolution simply evaporated. As foreign policy drifted to the margins, and attention shifted to social and economic issues, the party’s fundamental lack of consensus was bound to emerge.
The second, more comprehensive explanation addresses the source of this lack of consensus: the divisions within the GOP over such contentious matters as abortion, school curricula, homosexuality, and the separation of church and state. Here there is much evidence to call upon. Almost from the moment of the elder Bush’s election in 1988, moderate Republicans were voicing their unease at the growing influence of Christian activists within the party. These internal cracks widened further with Patrick J. Buchanan’s challenge to Bush four years later. Although Buchanan never represented a real threat, he galvanized a strand of the party that had long been dormant: an angry and vocal bloc of voters hostile to immigration, suspicious of Bush’s “New World Order,” and critical of free trade.
So far has the factionalization of the GOP progressed that, in an extremely thoughtful overview of the party published last year in the Atlantic, Christopher Caldwell could assert that it has begun to resemble nothing so much as the Democratic party at the height of its self-destructive phase in the mid-1970’s. Increasingly dominated by Southern conservatives who place moral issues at the center of politics, today’s Republican party has become, in Caldwell’s description, “McGovernized.”
But the problem is not just one of internal divisiveness. What has occurred over the last decade is a loss of the sense of national purpose that was the chief hallmark of Reaganism. For most of his political career, Reagan spoke of three fundamental goals: reducing the size and scope of government, curtailing the hegemony of Washington over problems that could be solved locally, and promoting freedom around the world. During his presidency, he made these ideas the bedrock of the Republican creed. But he wrapped them in a vision that appealed to the inherent idealism of the American people—and that also celebrated the power of government to do good.
“Our party speaks for human freedom,” Reagan said in his speech to the 1988 GOP convention,
for the sweep of liberties that are at the core of our existence. We do not shirk from our duties to preserve freedom so it can unfold across the world of yearning millions. We believe that lasting peace comes only through strength and not through the good will of our adversaries. We have a healthy skepticism of government, checking its excesses at the same time we’re willing to harness its energy when it helps improve the lives of our citizens.
In both obvious and subtle ways, the post-Reagan Republicans have departed from this political vision. What has happened can be best described as a turn neither to the Left nor to the Right. Instead, in the name of Reaganite goals, the party has embraced a crude mix of libertarian minimalism and anti-Washington zealotry that has caused it, at least at the national level, to lose its sense of what it means to govern.
When it comes to reducing the size and scope of government, Republicans over the last decade focused first and foremost on the idea of a balanced budget. Indeed, passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution has been a standard element of Republican rhetoric since Reagan took office. Yet, as often as Reagan spoke of this goal, the truth is that it was hardly his top priority. The broader platform on which he ran for the presidency called for reenergizing the hapless economy of the 1970’s and rebuilding America’s defense forces. That, in turn, required both tax cuts and increased defense spending, and both of these took precedence over balancing the budget. For him, the budget was an instrument for bringing discipline to Congress and, ultimately, shrinking the size of government. It was not an end in itself, and never once in his years in office did Reagan submit a balanced-budget proposal to Congress.
To his critics, Reagan’s fondness for speaking in the same breath of balanced budgets and tax cuts and defense spending was simply evidence of his lack of realism. Chief among those critics was the President’s own first Budget Director, David Stockman, to whom Reagan’s “supply-side” economics—the notion that tax cuts could actually foster growth and thus make it unnecessary to institute draconian reductions in spending—was a chimera. By 1985 Stockman had left town, calling the Reagan White House a “dreamland.”
Seventeen years of almost uninterrupted growth and now a budget surplus would seem definitively to have disproved Stockman—and yet his influence on the internal temper of the GOP has been substantial. Even during Reagan’s second term, as the federal deficit grew, more and more Republicans joined Democrats in decrying it as our number-one national problem. To George Bush in particular, the Democrats’ animadversions against the federal deficit stung. If Reagan was an enterprising Californian, Bush was a thrifty Yankee, and one of his first moves after becoming President was to appoint Richard Darman, the one colleague in the Reagan White House whom David Stockman had seemed to admire, as Budget Director. In the Bush administration, Darman’s mastery of fiscal and domestic-policy detail would make him the President’s most influential adviser.
Conservatives understandably blame Darman for engineering the 1990 budget deal that broke the President’s “no-new-taxes” pledge. That deal certainly damaged the Republicans’ credibility on what had been up until then their strongest domestic issue. But it also signaled an ominous strategic shift in Republican thinking, and one that has largely escaped criticism. Under Bush and Darman, the budget deficit would assume a priority it had never had before. Governing in the midst of a short-term recession, Bush and his spokesmen devoted more time to discussing the deficit and the “budget caps” they had negotiated with Congress than they did to discussing how to bolster the temporarily ailing economy.
This obsession with budgetary matters was seen most clearly in an eleventh-hour attempt to win popular support during Bush’s flagging reelection campaign in 1992. At the Republican convention, the President unveiled a new economic plan whose centerpiece was a provision allowing taxpayers to assign as much as 10 percent of their federal income tax to deficit reduction. It was the type of gimmick that might have won applause from the staff of the Office of Management and Budget, but it predictably made no impression whatsoever on Americans who wanted to see their personal wealth grow. The Clinton campaign (“It’s the economy, stupid”) was only too eager to take advantage of this new Republican blindness to larger national concerns.
Nor did the blindness dissipate in the wake of Bush’s defeat: the first item in the Contract with America was a balanced-budget amendment, and in line with it the Republican freshmen of 1994 began pursuing spending cuts with zeal. Though the size and severity of their proposed cuts were much exaggerated by the Democrats, the agenda of the new Republican party could nevertheless be characterized as one of austerity, replacing Reagan’s cheery optimism with stinginess. (“Once members of Congress know exactly, chapter and verse, the pain that the government must live with” in order to get to a balanced budget, said Republican majority leader Dick Armey on Meet the Press, “their knees will buckle.”)
One who had apparently learned from Reagan was President Bill Clinton, who stood placidly on the sidelines while Republicans bickered among themselves over whether or not a balanced-budget amendment had to contain a federal spending limit and just how much pain would be required. Then, in December 1995, the Republican-led Congress shut down the federal government as a direct challenge to the President. Ten years earlier, the fact that the American public was reluctant to bear 30-percent reductions in federal programs in order to achieve a balanced budget had exasperated and defeated officials like David Stockman. In the mid-1990’s, the entire Republican leadership in Congress seemed determined to teach the American public the error of its ways. In the ensuing confrontation, the President, speaking for that selfsame public, won a resounding victory.
Of course, it might be said that GOP persistence paid off in the end: the year after the government shutdown, congressional Republicans did reach a seven-year balanced-budget agreement with Bill Clinton. But already the context was a radically changed one. By then, the vibrant American economy of the 1990’s was pouring revenues into the Treasury at a rate that neither Democrats nor Republicans had anticipated. In 1997, a budget surplus was in reach, and without the need for contentious cutting of the kind Republicans had so intensively lobbied for. The huge investment they had made in creating a budget that would meet an arbitrary seven-year timetable had gone for naught.
It might also be said—correctly—that shrinking the scope of government and cutting programs that serve no purpose remains a worthy, even a noble, endeavor. Even in an era of surpluses, the case needs to be made that the federal government is intrusive and inefficient, that many of its functions are better carried out by the private sector, and that some deserve to be eliminated altogether. Reagan himself made that case repeatedly. But what 1990’s Republicans seemed to forget was that he also proposed harnessing the energy of government to help improve the lives of American citizens. Instead of acting as the voice of growth, prosperity, and efficient government, the Republicans had allowed themselves to become a voice for nothing more exalted than bean-counting.
If they misread Reagan on the budget deficit, Republicans displayed a similar obtuseness on his second major theme, shifting power away from Washington and toward state and local governments. In itself, this notion was hardly new: it extended back to Richard Nixon’s “New Federalism” and to still earlier ideas of revenue-sharing. The premise was, and remains, straightforward enough: bringing the processes of government closer to those who must live under them will make government more accountable to the concerns of citizens, reduce the tendency to bureaucratic inflexibility, and infuse states and localities with a fresh sense of responsibility for devising their own means toward common goals.
Over the last decade, this whole movement for a shift in power to the local level, known as “devolution,” has gained a lot of ground. Nowhere has it been more visible than in the Republican-led effort to end the federal welfare entitlement, transforming it instead into a series of block grants that allow state governors a tremendous degree of latitude in designing their own programs.
By most measures, the devolution of federal welfare policy to the states has been an astounding success—one of the greatest domestic-policy successes of the last quarter-century. Most states have been able to reduce significantly the number of people on their welfare rolls, and many are operating carefully conceived work-and-training programs that instill a sense of individual responsibility and self-confidence. While there are critics—two of President Clinton’s top advisers quit when he signed the 1996 welfare-reform bill—few dispute that, in general, this has been a positive experiment in government reform.
For Republicans, however, the initial success of welfare reform seemed to vindicate a much broader notion that also lay at the heart of the Contract with America: namely, that Washington, a place filled with career politicians, had become incapable of making many if not most of the decisions affecting American communities. Adopting a near-absolutist position on devolution, many Republicans began automatically to favor any program that could be passed down to the states, ignoring or slighting others that were by their very nature national. This preference for localism in all things has led to some perverse consequences.
First, as William J. Bennett and John J. Dilulio, Jr., have pointed out (“What Good Is Government?,” COMMENTARY, November 1997), shifting rule-making and responsibility to state houses has hardly meant an end to big government; on the contrary, it has brought about an increase in “the real ‘Washington bureaucracy’ ”—the “millions and millions of people who work indirectly for the national government as employees of state and local agencies, private firms, and nonprofit organizations that are largely if not entirely funded by federal dollars.”
Welfare is a case in point. Across the country, taxpayers are spending not less money but more to fund their welfare systems. That is not necessarily a bad thing if the result is to do away with the perverse incentives of aid to nonworking single mothers. But in their eagerness to push programs out of Washington to the states, Republicans have scanted longterm costs, while also turning a blind eye to the loss of the federal government’s “capacity,” as Bennett and DiIulio put it, “to monitor and correct.”
A still more disturbing feature of the Republican passion for local solutions is an unwillingness to consider federal action that advances conservative aims. Over the last few years, for example, House Republicans have fought a principled battle against President Clinton’s proposed national education-testing plan, which would give substantive control over such tests to the large interest groups that dominate American education. Fair enough; but so fierce is GOP opposition to anything that combines the words “national” and “education” that Republicans have also rejected a number of sensible proposals for voluntary, independent tests to provide the data on which charter schools and school-choice projects—two initiatives dear to conservative hearts—depend.
Nor is education the only field where this exaggerated aversion to federal policy has not served Republicans well. On health care, Medicare, tort reform, crime—issues on which Republicans should have been able to draw the clearest distinction between themselves and Bill Clinton, and hence to reassert a true, governing agenda of their own—they have all but abandoned the field.
Perhaps the most salient expression of anti-Washington bias among Republicans has been the misconceived and misguided campaign for term limits on members of Congress, still another tenet of the Contract with America. Even before the Supreme Court ruled, in a 1995 case, that enacting this measure would require a constitutional amendment, it had already failed to pass in Congress, and subsequent votes on the required amendment fell short of the needed two-thirds majority.
But what is really striking about the Republican flirtation with term limits is how brief it was. One Republican Congressman, Scott McIniss, has already broken his pledge to serve for no more than three terms; others who may follow suit include George Nethercutt of Washington state, who made term limits the centerpiece of his successful 1994 campaign against House Speaker Thomas Foley. In an interview in the Washington Post, a press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee nonchalantly explained the party’s cooling ardor in these words: “term limits doesn’t pull very well.” While there is obviously a high degree of political hypocrisy at work here, a more interesting question is how the poll-driven GOP managed so thoroughly to misgauge the public mood.
To anyone who was paying attention, in fact, the party’s own victory in the 1994 congressional elections should have raised a doubt as to whether term limits were even necessary. In addition to Thomas Foley, Democratic powerbrokers like Jack Brooks, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Jim Sasser, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee—all three of them models of the well-funded, career politician—were defeated by upstart Republican candidates with little or no experience in elected office. It is true, historically, that the vast majority of congressional incumbents have been able to hold on to their seats and discourage challengers. But the notion that it is impossible to turn out established barons is false. And as for curbing the influence of long-serving individuals who have accrued too much power and are owed too many favors, that was readily accomplished by restricting the terms of committee chairmen, an uncontroversial measure adopted by the House Republicans early in 1995.
Alas, however, instead of being satisfied with this historic reform, the GOP pushed on with its campaign for term limits, much to its present chagrin. Not only has that campaign fostered internal disagreement, but many of the most promising legislators who committed themselves to a three-term limit are now stepping down, while others who ran on this platform and have since changed their minds have been left looking insincere and untrustworthy. Most unsettling of all, Republicans have opened themselves to the charge that they care more about how long a Congressman serves than about what he actually stands for. All in all, a poor return on an ill-thought-out investment of intellectual and political capital.
But where the Republican party of today has drifted farthest from the party under Reagan is in the third major area, foreign policy and defense—or rather, as Reagan himself put it in the 1988 speech I quoted earlier, in the duty to “preserve freedom so it can unfold across the world of yearning millions.”
That the federal government’s commitment to a stronger military has undergone a sharp reversal since the 1980’s is hardly in doubt. Obviously, much of the decline is attributable to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. But instead of meeting the changed global situation with a more focused military, what we have created instead is a vastly underfunded one.
When, in late 1998, Bill Clinton ordered the large-scale bombing of Iraq, it was no longer possible for us to mobilize our armaments on anything like the scale of Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91. Earlier this year, during the sustained air war against Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia, U.S. military planners had to ration cruise missiles for fear of running out. Since 1989, the army and air force have been reduced by 45 percent, the navy by 36 percent. Missing parts, shortages of trained pilots, low supplies of ammunition: these are sorry facts of life in today’s military.
The temptation is strong in Republican circles to blame this alarming state of affairs entirely on the present administration. But ever since the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress, they have been in a position to right the situation. Instead, the GOP, once again fixated by overall budget targets, has regularly countered the Clinton administration’s slim proposals with even slimmer ones.
There is, however, another factor at work besides fiscal small-mindedness. The single most consequential development in Republican politics since Ronald Reagan left office has been the rise of an outspoken wing that no longer believes in an active American role in the world. Patrick J. Buchanan gave voice to this faction when he challenged President Bush in 1992, and again in challenging and defeating Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary in 1996.
But the new mood is hardly restricted to a relatively marginal figure like the isolationist Buchanan. Among Republican Congressmen, its influence was seen most starkly during the fighting in Yugoslavia. Whatever one makes of the merits and demerits of Clinton’s decision to go to war, it is nevertheless remarkable that even after our forces were engaged, a majority of House Republicans voted not only against a resolution supporting the air war but also for a measure requiring congressional approval before ground troops could be introduced. Suddenly, Republicans were invoking the War Powers Act, a piece of Vietnam-era legislation that the GOP has consistently opposed as an intolerable restraint on the ability of the chief executive to conduct foreign policy. If, in 1989, a group of left-wing Democrats went to court in an effort to stop President George Bush’s campaign against Saddam Hussein, ten years later, seventeen legislators, including the liberal Republican Tom Campbell of California and the conservative Republican Bob Barr of Georgia, were filing suit in federal court to stop the bombing of Serbia.
The disappearance of a Reagan-style commitment to global activism is visible in smaller matters as well. This summer, a Senate committee voted to defund the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a fifteen-year-old program that assists fledgling democratic movements around the world. In the context of the federal budget, the NED is tiny—less than half the size of the Republicans’ favorite bête noire, the National Endowment for the Arts. But promoting democracy abroad, though now in favor in the State Department, no longer seems the priority it once was for congressional Republicans.
Finally, the loss of Reagan’s broader vision of America as, in his words, “the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom” can be seen in the diminishing enthusiasm for a strategic missile defense. First proposed by Reagan in the mid-1980’s and since then the signature program of Republican defense thinking, missile defense has not exactly been forgotten—funding for it was a part of the Contract with America—but, as Robert Kagan and Gary Schmitt have chronicled in these pages (“Now May We Please Defend Ourselves?,” July 1998), GOP support has been half-hearted at best. In 1995, House budget hawks, led by John Kasich, were instrumental in preventing a missile-defense plan from winning more than token funding for continued research.
The role played by John Kasich in the defeat of strategic missile defense is noteworthy, for Kasich has emerged as one of the most influential, telegenic, and articulate Republican officials of the 1990’s. Elected to the House in 1982 to represent a district centered in Columbus, Ohio, Kasich quickly gained prominence as a budget expert, preparing alternate scenarios while the Democrats still ruled the House. His grasp of arcana was reminiscent of David Stockman’s, and, like Stockman, he too won praise from liberal journalists for his willingness to stand against his own party’s proposals for greater spending on defense.
With the Republicans’ congressional victory in 1994, Kasich’s star rose still higher. Invariably described as brash and garrulous, he became a point man for the new fiscal strategy and a regular television spokesman for his party. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he led the charge to put a balanced budget at the top of the national agenda. With all of Stockman’s acuity, and without Stockman’s menacing air, the genial Kasich persuaded his colleagues to remain rigid on their seven-year timetable and to force a showdown with the President. In keeping with the new GOP culture, Kasich was also a champion of devolution; he has recently written a treacle-laden book about the achievements of ordinary citizens.
In short, if anyone can be said to embody the spirit of congressional Republicans in the 1990’s, it is John Kasich. That is why the dismal fate of his 1999 bid for the GOP presidential nomination, which ended in July just a few months after he announced he was entering the race, is so instructive. To be sure, there were plenty of reasons why Kasich was not a viable candidate. He is not widely known; he lacked a broad fundraising network; and he had no prior experience in Republican presidential primaries. Typically, though, the fact that Republican voters did not even recognize his name seems to have taken him by surprise. “I thought with the budget agreement,” Kasich told David Broder of the Washington Post, “and what I think has been a pretty high-visibility role I’ve performed in Congress since 1995, I’d be better known.”
Wounded vanity aside, Kasich’s failure to connect with American voters may tell us as much about the resonance of the current Republican agenda with the American electorate as about his personal pullingpower as a candidate. The very issues that have animated Kasich and his colleagues—a balanced budget, devolution, a more restrained defense budget, and a less interventionist foreign policy—appear to hold no special appeal to voters: Republican voters, in this case. Meanwhile, even as they have been embracing such narrow and essentially negative issues, Republican leaders have neglected those on which they might have decisively placed a positive imprint—market-oriented health care, school choice, legal reform, an end to racial preferences in government, Social Security privatization, free-trade agreements with Asia and Latin America, swifter approval processes for prescription drugs, even an incentive-based environmental policy to counter Al Gore’s big-government one.
Are Kasich and his colleagues merely victims of their own success? After all, having defeated the Democrats in the war of ideas, and having put into place the structural precedents—a balanced budget, block grants—to act as a bulwark against a resurgent liberalism in Congress, Republicans might be said to be in the happy position of now being able to move on to their next set of challenges. If that is so, a grand opportunity awaits them. Once a presidential candidate emerges next year, the party will again have a chance to shape a national agenda that can appeal to American patriotism and idealism and bring swing voters back into the fold.
To do this, however, will be no easy task. It is plainly unrealistic to hope for the sudden, galvanizing emergence of another Ronald Reagan, and to believe, as Newt Gingrich once did, that the next stage of Republicanism requires building on the Contract with America is folly. To the contrary, what is required is a thorough rethinking of what the party has been up to over the last ten years. For whether one is speaking of the stand-off over the balanced budget, the push for term limits, or, ultimately, the impeachment of the President, where Republicans in Washington have most succeeded in the 1990’s is in being reflexively anti-government. Where they have resoundingly failed is in being what they were on the verge of being a mere ten years ago, the party of conservative governance.