There is not much for conservatives to cheer about the 109th Congress. With the exception of passing a bankruptcy bill and mild reform of class action lawsuits, Republicans have so far failed to capitalize on their strengthened majority in Congress. The GOP may have won the 2004 election war, but it is now losing the peace.
Key pieces of President George W. Bush’s agenda remain stalled, and are quickly going nowhere. Social Security overhaul is being resisted not only by Democrats, but skittish Republicans who are afraid of the backlash from a skeptical electorate. Tax reform will remain in limbo until the blue ribbon commission announces its findings in the summer. On health care, congressional Republicans promised voters that they would reduce the ranks of the uninsured. The only effective way to achieve this is greater privatizing of health care. Yet they have not put together any meaningful legislation.
The GOP is not only in political retreat. It is also in philosophical retreat.
The party of small government, low taxes and free trade has become more interested in holding office than in advancing conservative principles. Senate Republicans continue to balk at making the 2003 Bush tax cuts permanent—despite their obvious success in reviving the economy. CAFTA is heading toward defeat due to an unholy alliance between liberal Democrats and protectionist Republicans. The President has repeatedly asked for excessive spending to be reined in. Yet this hasn’t stopped the congressional leadership from gorging at the public trough. In fact, they are proposing a massive increase in federal government spending. This is evident in the subsidy-laden energy package and the bloated highway bill, which President Bush is threatening to veto.
The biggest defeat, however, was the compromise by the Gang of 14 on judicial nominations. Republicans had the votes to use the so-called “nuclear option” to end the Democrats’ filibustering on Bush’s stalled nominees. Yet moderate Republicans succeeded in accomplishing something almost unheard of: snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This may help them win praise from the Beltway media establishment, but it does not bode well for the President’s future Supreme Court nominees—especially, if they are Bork-Thomas-Scalia conservatives.
Republicans have lost their nerve. Having sailed into Congress in 1994 with promises of instituting a conservative revolution, the GOP is now adrift and ideologically rudderless. The party no longer stands for a coherent set of principles.
Yet the problem is even deeper than that. Republicans have become corrupted by power, seeking to govern by opinion polls and beholden to a myriad of economic interests. They have become too comfortable in their majority status. They have forgotten why they came to Washington.
Ironically, Republicans are going down the same disastrous path that eventually cost the Democrats their majority in Congress. The Gingrich revolutionaries rode to power denouncing the Democrats for their out-of-control spending habits and cozy relationship with special interest groups. Yet having vowed to clean-up the cesspool, Republicans have found it resembles more like a giant whirl pool. In the end, however, the voters will punish the GOP. Most Americans, especially Bush supporters in the Red states, hate nothing more than fiscal extravagance and political waffling.
This is why Republicans need to return to their core conservative principles. And they don’t need to re-read Russell Kirk or Frederick Hayek in the process. All they need to do is follow their party’s titular leader.
President Bush has laid out a bold program, which will not only revitalize the Republican Party but also the moribund conservative movement. His calls for sweeping tax cuts, deregulation and a Western Hemispheric free-trade zone will ensure America’s future prosperity and growth. His push for entitlement reform, private pension accounts and empowering faith-based groups to deliver social services to the needy will help to dramatically curb the size and scope of government. Finally, his desire to appoint genuine conservatives to the federal judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, will help to restore states’ rights and federalism. The placing of strict constructionists on the bench will go a long way toward decentralizing power and dismantling Big Government liberalism.
It is a tall order. But for Republicans it is the only real game in town. The GOP must stick to its conservative principles or else face the growing contempt of voters. Its current strategy of standpattism and statist corporatism only serves to alienate the party’s base while failing to win over new supporters.
Lord Acton, the great 19th-century British classical liberal, famously stated: “Power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” Congressional Republicans are now demonstrating this axiom. However, it is not too late for the GOP-led 109th Congress to turn things around, and become the party of principle again.
But Republicans need to move quickly.