Politics & Policy

The Spirit of 1994

There's no middle of the road victory.

Though some Democratic activists privately admit that their party is too dysfunctional to transform Republican blunders into success in the 2006 elections, the party’s reliable friends in the media, such as E. J. Dionne Jr., sound increasingly excited at the prospect of heavy Republican losses. 2006 is “looking a lot like the political years 1958, 1966 and 1978, all of which heralded major political transformations,” wrote Dionne earlier this week. “The 2006 elections will determine whether [Karl] Rove’s brilliantly constructed machine has staying power or falls apart in the face of adversity. And there was adversity in abundance during 2005.”

Dionne swallows the myth of the powerful moderate voter whole and assumes that if the Republicans would just jettison their strict principles and embrace his centrism their political problems would vanish. Therefore, it doesn’t occur to him that the Republicans’ political slump in 2005 was due not to upsetting conservative governance–Dionne cites Social Security reform and the defense of Terri Schiavo as political disasters from which the Republicans haven’t recovered–but to the lack of consistent conservative governance. Insufficient moderation or outside-the-mainstream conservative idealism, as Dionne suggests, don’t account for the GOP’s vulnerability this year; philosophical drift and big-government corruption do.

Republicans will lose this year not if they govern like principled Republicans but if they continue to govern like plutocratic Democrats. In his index of significant election years, Dionne doesn’t mention 1994 and the Contract with America. But it is the disappearance of that year’s idealistic spirit which explains the Republicans’ political malaise, certainly far more than the principled defense of a disabled woman. If Republicans want to ward off defeat in 2006, they will need to recover the spirit of 1994, not dilute their principles even more in order to please Dionne’s mythical “middle-of-the-road voters.”

Dionne writes that “Bush’s carefully cultivated image as a strong, trustworthy leader in the war on terrorism brought around enough middle-of-the-road voters to create the Republican monolith that is now our national government.” This is false. Bush won reelection not by moving to the middle but by enlarging and energizing his conservative base. New conservative supporters afraid of a Massachusetts liberal in the White House, not old moderates, helped him win. But Dionne needs this storyline in order to suggest that principled Republicanism is a political liability, and that the party’s political staying power lies in a more pragmatic, centrist approach.

This never-alienate-the-moderates analysis doesn’t hold up, as the most enduringly popular Republicans are the least self-consciously pragmatic ones. How many times did Dionne and other exponents of pragmatism in the 1980s write that Ronald Reagan didn’t pay enough attention to middle-of-the-road voters? How many times did they say that Reagan’s popularity and legacy would depend upon “moderating” his position on this or that issue? They were wrong. Reagan’s lesson to his party, which it neglects to its political peril, is that good politics follows good government, and good government follows good principles. But a party that seeks to consolidate political success and government power at the expense of its principles will end up with neither.

2006 won’t dislodge the Republicans from power if they renew the sound principles that got them it in the first place. The Democrats, by engaging in foolish posturing instead of reworking their platform along sensible lines, have given them plenty of room to regain their footing. The Democrats are still viewed as untrustworthy on the economy, which is growing at a fast clip thanks to the tax cuts they opposed. The Democrats are still viewed as untrustworthy on moral issues, which the upcoming, abortion-centric Alito hearings will further highlight. And they are still viewed as hopelessly untrustworthy on security issues, a problem that will grow deeper as the Democrats revert to the McGovernite playbook of defeatism and ACLU utopianism.

It is only when Republicans deviate from their own stated principles that the Democrats can land any real punches on them. Through opportunistic concerns about prodigal spending, for example, the Democrats have effectively transferred attention from their big-government vices to Republican insincerity and corruption.

It is time the GOP call the bluff of these new Democratic converts to the virtues of limited government. It is time Republicans revive the spirit of 1994.

George Neumayr is a writer living in the Washington, D.C. area.

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