Wanted: New Ideas for the GOP

Back when Republicans were winning elections in the 1980s, Tip O’Neill used to say that it was because Democratic policies made a lot of people rich enough to vote Republican. Republicans who are saying that the party needs to go back to the principles of 1994 or Ronald Reagan should keep O’Neill’s lesson in mind: Successful public policies render moot the issues that bring parties to power. They won’t keep winning unless they address new issues.

With that in mind, let’s examine the successful Republican policies since their takeover of Congress in 1994.

Some of these were on economic issues, addressable only at the federal level. The big budget deficits of the early 1990s were eliminated by the Clinton tax increases and by the one-year standstill in spending the Republicans forced on Bill Clinton in 1995. With George W. Bush in office, Republicans produced tax cuts that kicked the economy out of recession and gave us robust, low-inflation economic growth.

Another public-policy success was welfare reform, forced on Clinton by the Republicans in 1996. But note that that success came after, and was inspired by, welfare reform in the states, started by Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin in 1987 and followed by many Republicans and also some Democrats.

Still another public-policy success of the 1990s — crime control — was almost entirely the work of big-city mayors, starting with Rudy Giuliani in New York. On crime, Clinton and the Republican Congress were no more than interested and occasionally helpful bystanders.

Some public-policy successes of the Bush years have been criticized by many conservatives. One was the education accountability measures in the No Child Left Behind Act. Here, Bush and a bipartisan coalition were federalizing reforms initiated in the states, by governors like Bush himself, his brother Jeb Bush in Florida and Democrat Jim Hunt in North Carolina.

Then there was the controversial Medicare prescription drug law pushed through in a three-hour roll call in 2003. Many conservatives criticize the creation of a new federal entitlement. Bush’s argument was that there was going to be a prescription drug benefit sooner or later and that it was better to have a Republican version that provided for competition and choice, rather than government ukase.

The bill also allowed the expansion of health savings accounts, which have the potential to change private-sector health insurance the way that Section 401(k) of the tax code has changed private-sector pensions. HSAs are expanding rapidly, and polls show seniors highly pleased with the prescription drug plans they’ve chosen — and competition is holding down costs.

To be sure, this is big-government conservatism. But who thinks we’re going to get rid of big government? Bush’s approach has been to enhance choice and accountability, to rely more on markets and less on government commands.

It’s the only realistic conservatism for America today.

Note that conservative policy successes have taken some issues off the political table. Republicans won a lot of suburban districts in 1994 on the issues of crime, welfare and taxes. Crime and welfare are not major issues anymore. And the Democrats’ obvious unwillingness to raise taxes substantially after their defeat in 1994 took taxes off the table, too — though the issue may come back in 2008, when voters could face a choice between Republicans who promise to extend the tax cuts that expire in 2010 and Democrats who may be eager to let those taxes go back up again. That might switch some of those suburban districts back toward Republicans.

 What issues could Republicans raise in 2008? They would do well to look to the states, and especially to Florida, where Jeb Bush has enacted innovative policies on school choice and healthcare. They could look at some Democrats, as well, like Tennessee’s Gov. Phil Bredesen, who has been reforming an overly generous Medicaid program.

They could highlight the proposal of Republican Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona to allow people to buy health insurance across state lines. They could consider Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s proposal to get lower-income workers to save and invest with tax credits for IRA contributions. Republicans aren’t going to win elections with the new ideas of 1980, 1994 or 2000. They need new ideas for 2008.