Republicans will shortly need to stand for something more than just being against much of the Obama agenda. Only a superior and detailed alternative can win more lasting support than just a midterm correction.
Obama, after all — with nationalized health care, amnesty, cap-and-trade, financial overhaul, government absorption of private enterprise, takeover of the student-loan industry, and gorge-the-beast deficits that will ensure a generation of higher taxes — at least seems to have some sort of plan to change America.
The absurdity of $1.5 trillion annual deficits is easy to run on; but where in the budget should we freeze or cut spending? To restore fiscal sanity, we need details rather than vague promises to reduce red ink to a particular percentage of GDP. Is there to be an across-the-board spending freeze or targeted cuts? How much, if at all, does defense get cut? If it does, where and how?
Fairly or not, we are at the stage where, at least in the short term, each proposed dollar of tax cuts needs to be matched by a proposed dollar of spending reduction. The supply-side notion of expanding federal revenue through tax cuts and business stimulation remains of course valid. But in the here and now, the public needs concrete reality, not assurances about more money to come in within a year or two.
Amnesty — under the euphemism of “comprehensive immigration reform” — would be a disaster. But in critiquing Obama’s policies, Republicans need to explain precisely how employer sanctions, increased patrols, and the completion of the fence will result in near-zero illegal entry. Then they must detail what exactly to do with the existing population of illegal aliens, which may well exceed 12 million — of whom most are neither felons nor unemployed.
What exactly is earned citizenship, and how does it differ from amnesty? Does one have to go back to Mexico to apply for readmission for American residency or to obtain citizenship? How would fines be levied and collected? Are we to close the border first, and let various agencies incrementally deport illegal aliens over several years as they come across them?
If the Republicans are not prepared to answer these questions and more, then they will get hit with the charge of advocating “mass deportations” — and with 60 Minutes–style stories of a valedictorian Victoria Lopez or a football star Jorge Garcia detained during a traffic stop and cruelly put on a bus to Oaxaca.
Obama seems lost on Afghanistan. He avoided General McChrystal for months. He foolishly, as with his promises on Guantanamo, set an arbitrary date for phased troop withdrawals. And he is imprisoned now within his own self-created paradox of the supposed good war in Afghanistan turned bad, and the bad war in Iraq turned good.
But what is the alternative? Can Republicans articulate a simple three-step policy that will set out: (1) our objectives and aims in Afghanistan, (2) how we are going to achieve them, and (3) a rough estimate of the costs and sacrifices necessary? Can they explain why continuing the war is preferable to leaving? Without some specificity about what would constitute victory and how we can secure it, we are back to Nixon’s campaign promise of a “secret plan” to abruptly end the Vietnam War, which turned out to be Vietnamization stretched out over four years.
Obama’s reset foreign policy is heading for a Carter-like collision with reality. But so far has anyone in the opposition explicitly explained why the new alignment policy is wrong, and how it can be changed? Should we reemphasize our ties with Britain, Colombia, Israel, and India, while ceasing to talk to Iran and Syria? What would the conservative reset-button diplomacy with Russia and China look like?
It is easy to denounce the pathetic apology tours, but what exactly is the Republican vision of how to explain an exceptional America without being haughty? Instead of U.N. guidance, is there to be a determined effort to encourage democratic and free-market nations to join America in resisting autocracy? Can we hear that Guantanamo both is a humane detention center and fulfills a need in a war in which terrorist killers do not fit the traditional criteria of the Geneva Conventions, as Eric Holder himself once explained? Could a Republican explain how these new $1.5 trillion deficits cripple U.S. foreign-policy options?
Cap-and-trade looms as a calamity. The billions Obama has spent on wind and solar subsidies seem to be yet another boondoggle. Fine — but exactly how are we going to transition to new fuels without going broke? Will the Republicans explain why oil, natural gas, clean coal, and nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar power are all necessary, and state the rough percentage of our energy profile that each should make up? Can they retool “Drill, baby, drill” for the post-BP age?
The more we learn about Obama’s health-care solution, the more we see that it will be the source of vast new problems. Okay. But do the Republicans have a way to manage costs for the aged and ill, who in their last year often exceed the aggregate health-care expenditure of their entire life up until then? Can the opposition address that issue in ways other than dismissing “death panels”? Do kids between age 23 and their first job need health insurance? And if so, how are they going to get it? How does the middle-class family with a house, two cars, and a 401(k) not lose everything if the suddenly out-of-work father develops lymphoma? Or does it lose everything?
Entitlement costs are slowly strangling the American economy. Medicare and Social Security are unsustainable. We can all agree on that, and on the fact that the Democrats’ usual response is to demagogue anyone who points it out. But what exactly would Republicans do? Raise the age for Social Security eligibility? Raise Medicare premiums? The days of simply adding on prescription-drug benefits without the means to pay for them are long over. And yet the last time Republicans offered the solution of quasi-private retirement and health-care accounts, in 2005, they were massacred politically. Have they got better ideas now — or a better notion of how to present these largely good ideas?
Cannot Republicans insist on an ethics pledge, so that the careers of a Charles Rangel and a Chris Dodd are not followed by another Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham?
Republican politicos will quite accurately lecture that presenting such detailed alternative plans would be foolhardy: The key now is simply to be against what an unpopular Obama is for. I accept that offering detailed solutions might well turn the public as much against the proposed medicine as against the original malignant disease.
Yet at some point, blanket Obama-bashing without a comprehensive alternative will turn stale. Critics of Obama — if they are to be taken seriously — will have to be about more than not being Obama. Instead, conservatives must identify exactly how to undo the Obama agenda — and do so in a way that does not earn them the disdain that the Republican Congress earned between 2001 and 2006, and the Republican administration between 2005 and 2009.
We need some notion of a contracted agenda, so that conservative voters can hold conservative politicians to account in this age of anti-incumbency. Voters wanted closed borders, balanced budgets, ethical members of Congress, and less government between 2001 and 2006. They believed that all of that had been promised — and then were sorely disappointed.
In short, conservative voters want to see something specific — as much to keep their own honest as to defeat the other.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.