A Mission for the Republicans

What to do, oh, what to do? Jump off a tall building, or just wait for the Democrats to begin exhibiting the consequences of hubris and distraction? I propose to Republicans the latter course — easier on the dry-cleaning. Besides, as the Republicans’ own experience should have taught them, even the biggest victories have a surprisingly short shelf life.

The Democrats will spend the next year — until the presidential season kicks in — preening and defining themselves, and probably to the general good. A party guided from the left by Nancy Pelosi and from the right by Reaganite Senator-elect Jim Webb of Virginia is ripe for some definition. But so, too, are the Republicans — the subjects of today’s sermon.

Americans didn’t so much (it seems to me) turn their backs on the Republicans as invite the Grand Old Party to a reconsideration of its present principles. Which are? Allow me a moment of reflection as to the domestic side of things, leaving aside the more tangled problem of how to defeat terrorists.

A party develops its principles in response to challenge. The Goldwaterites — with whom both Hillary Clinton and I were oddly linked in ’64 — were reacting to New Deal-Fair Deal regulation and the threat of communism. What had to be done was clear enough: The state had to be limited or its energies balked, and communism had to be defeated. The Reagan administration finally brought about both results, more or less. What next?

We found we had an extensive, expensive government without enough to do. Moreover, the state continued to throw its weight around, imposing the libertarian notions of the ’60s: hands off my body (abortion), less God in public places (no school prayer, no manger scenes, etc.). Foes of the so-called religious right seem to think the religious right up and decided one day to make the whole country fundamentalist, when, in fact, the religious right seeks merely to restore the moral-cultural balance, c. 1960. Of course, by now everyone is into self-expression and wants to stay there, making respect for human life and opposition to abortion look puritanical. Hands off my body, Sen. Santorum!

The 21st century’s first president offered ideas that arose from the reduced state of morality and the public habit of expecting a large costly government to do something about even the second-order problems of the day, such as declining schools and the somewhere-down-the-line financial crisis of Social Security. Nothing the president addressed himself looked urgent enough for sharp definition — for the separation of sheep from goats. Only the war on terrorism had this quality, and because it dragged on and on without an obvious solution, numerous Americans ceased to see it as a challenge or deep concern. Wherefore, they voted Democratic.

Just humming along seems the natural condition of American politics, except when grave challenges arise, like the Depression or the Soviet threat. To this condition we may be returning in 2006. Whatever self-definition the Republicans come up with is likely to reflect voter ambiguity about what a government should do for its people. That is, until the terrorists strike again, at which point all bets are off.

What, oh, what to do? A few of us think the natural mission for a political party ought to be the subordination of politics, and political institutions, to larger concerns than the rearrangement of House and Senate seats. Large government breeds dependency, which breeds the expectation of more lucrative dependency. Large government we still have — larger than ever in the age of "compassionate conservatism," when the reasoning is, we’ve got all this power, let’s use it for good.

How about, instead of using it, handing it back? How about restoring power and responsibility and choice and autonomy to those sectors where federal "benevolence" has crowded them out? How about, for starters, a laudable project on which Republicans earlier gave up — their president’s proposal to let Americans choose what they want done with their Social Security contributions? Too soon, this, for a stunned and bleeding party?