Never eat with your fingers, my late mother said, but what can I tell you? I am only human and when I am really hungry all bets are off. Never start driving with a cold engine, my mechanic said, but what can I tell you? I am a busy guy and when I have to get somewhere fast all bets are off. Never extrapolate a principle from an anecdote, my logic teacher said, but what can I tell you? I am a journalist and when I need to report the voice of the people all bets are off. The first schmo I talk to is nominated as the Oracle of Delphi.
All of which brings us to the story of how I came to identify the Republican Party’s biggest problem at 30,000 feet.
Airborne over the heartland, sipping watered-down Diet Coke and munching on stale peanuts, having already snickered my way through the pap in the airline “magazine,” raised my eyebrows at the oddball novelty items in the Sky Mall catalog and made three abortive stabs at writing a column on the barf bag, I was left with no other choice: it was time to stop ignoring my seat neighbor. He was a nice guy about forty, with a thriving multinational seafood business, and the rare bird who would admit out loud to being a Republican.
The subject got around to my career and how my political consciousness evolved. I talked about getting behind Reagan back in 1976, when I was just eighteen, talking him up to skeptics for four years, and then the exhilarating ride to victory in 1980. I described the legislative battles that began after that, pushing for the Kemp-Roth tax cuts, and what a huge sea change was accomplished by getting the top tax rate down from seventy percent to as low as twenty-eight before it began inching its way back up to as high as 39.6 under Clinton.
“Wait a minute,” he says, clearing his throat apologetically. “Are you trying to tell me they used to take seventy cents of tax off a dollar of earnings?”
OMG! It hit me like a sudden airplane lavatory flush, like a food service cart behind the knees, like a spasm of turbulence, like the credit card bill after the vacation. This guy who is 40 now was just thirteen in 1980. He cannot even conceive of a world where you make a hundred dollars, 70 for Uncle Sam, 30 for you. Richard Daley getting the dead guys to vote in Chicago is not an image he can register. Tip O’Neill smoking his huge cigar poolside in Florida and cutting deals with labor leaders is not in his database.
On one level, of course, this is a source of pride for the GOP. Its accomplishments in the Reagan Era, and to a lesser degree in Gingrich’s House, are what define the perimeter of today’s political spectrum. A politician who suggested a return to a seventy-percent rate could not get one percent of the vote even if he was running against Michael Vick for dog-catcher. Suggesting multi-trillion dollar “programs” to solve every hiccup in the national wellbeing is no longer the order of the day, thanks to the profound imprint of the Reagan-Gingrich heyday.
The problem now is that too much success creates a soft underbelly. The main battles left to fight politically are defensive ones, pushing back when the Democrats get nutty and start overreaching. By definition being conservative means protecting a worthwhile status quo. There was no such thing back in 1980, so to be conservative involved mounting a revolution against the excesses in place. The man and woman in the street finally saw the need to shrink the behemoth, and it was largely accomplished. Not that the government does not spend twice as much as it did then, but it no longer keeps adding to an edifice of regulation designed to squelch individual initiative.
How can Republicans convince America again that they have a vision worth fighting for? Okay, a war against terrorism gives them a cause for some passion, even if sometimes the war takes unpopular turns. But is there any longer an approach to domestic policy that is both Republican and exciting? Are there significant economic achievements Republicans can still generate? Or is the only thing left for conservatives today… to conserve? It is in the nature of the political enterprise that to be electable calls for creativity, something beyond conserving. Back to the think tanks, I say, for late-night sessions with the policy proposals, eating with our fingers.