To be a heartfelt Republican has gotten hard in recent years, but while we were in charge in Washington and most state capitols it was easy, though perhaps unwise, to keep still about this.
Will the GOP use its recent losses to change itself into something that more people again feel positive about? Or will everyone assume that the 2006 election was just an anti-Bush, anti-Iraq glitch and therefore the party should stay on its present course until those two unpopular interruptions are behind us?
I feel about the Republican party today much as I felt about the Democrats after their post-1968 “reforms,” the party’s capture by McGovernites in 1972, and its further conquest by the teacher unions and their pals in 1976. It was no longer a place I belonged — which is why I joined the Reagan administration and have been a reasonably steadfast Republican ever since.
No, there’s little chance that Howard Dean’s and Ned Lamont’s party is going to lure me back (though Joe Lieberman’s might). But I may stay home, ignore the primaries, keep my (none-too-important) checkbook closed, and vote for quirky third-party candidates.
What’s gone wrong with the GOP? Let me start by quoting a friend who is both gay and conservative (yes, I know several such): “I’m for low taxes, strong defense and limited government. Why doesn’t the Republican party want me?”
There’s a two-part answer to that question and neither half is good news. The first is that today’s GOP doesn’t really want gays — and it yearns to supervise everybody else’s bedroom and reproductive behavior as well as (implicitly, at least) their relationship to God. The second is that Republicans are no longer really in favor of limited government. Besides having their own version of a nanny state, they want to spend and spend, start program after program, ladle out the pork, make deals with influence peddlers, and spin the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street. Yes, they still pretend to favor low taxes but that’s an illusion; they pay for limitless government via huge deficits that will mean high taxes for my granddaughter.
Three other domestic problems — and then a word about foreign policy.
First, while claiming to favor state and local control of social programs, the Republicans have accepted if not advocated astonishing amounts of micro-management from Washington, even when they were in charge. Consider the No Child Left Behind Act, where the White House and congressional leaders wound up getting it exactly backward: instead of national education standards, tests, and sunlight combined with state/local/school/parent autonomy regarding how (and when and even whether) to attain those standards, they decreed that states would set their own standards (and pick their own tests) while Washington dictates timelines, interventions, remedies, and procedures, even the selection of reading programs. And all of this offset by very little school choice. Perhaps this was the price of bipartisan legislation in 2001, but it’s not where the GOP should be five years later.
Second, the immigration-policy schism is catastrophic. Besides smacking of nativism, it repels legal immigrants who might vote Republican — a swelling population. It’s also bad for the economy, bad for law enforcement and bad for millions of kids who live here — and will grow up here — but through absolutely no fault of their own aren’t (or their parents aren’t) legal. Let the Democrats be split by anti-immigrant trade unions and job-wary blacks. Let the GOP say “Welcome. Play by the rules — before and after you come — and we’ll find a way to make you legal.”
Third, some of the party’s environmental positions are embarrassing, above all its denial of the global-warming problem and all that it portends. How can the U.S. deal energetically with such enormous warmers as China and India if it doesn’t first acknowledge that the icecaps are melting and human activity is at least partly responsible?
Foreign policy isn’t my forte, but I don’t think the U.S., strong and rich as it is, can go it alone internationally. We’re obviously having no luck with Iran and North Korea. China is kicking our butt. Darfur is a crime against humanity. NATO is probably obsolete. The U.N. is basically useless. Somebody smarter than I am needs to rethink all this for a globalizing, post-Cold War planet that buzzes with terrorists.
And that’s the key point. When it comes to thinking and rethinking, the GOP seems to be on autopilot, like England’s Tories, once known (Pat Moynihan taught me) as “the stupid party.” For most of the past 30 years, Republicans were America’s smart party, the party of ideas. Conservatism was intellectually respectable, abounding in imaginative people offering fresh approaches. But where will tomorrow’s ideas come from? When the Democrats ran out of ideas and tilted toward their own extremists, some wise folks started the Democratic Leadership Council, a charter member of which was Bill Clinton, the most successful (despite his character flaws) Democratic politician of my adult life. Where is its Republican equivalent? Who will lead it? Shouldn’t we be addressing those questions before the 2008 primaries begin?
– Chester Finn is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He was assistant secretary of education from 1985 to 1988.