Republican reformers want to move away from the legacy of Ronald Reagan. While it is true that events have changed in 30 years, the theme of the Reagan Revolution must remain at the core of the conservative movement: “Let’s Make American Great Again” was Reagan’s winning campaign slogan after the debacle of the 1970s when the Left surrendered to enemies overseas and to malaise at home. The country is in that fix again and needs national, not special interest, leadership.
By William R. Hawkins l October 15, 2014
With national elections looming, all the structural factors favor a Republican wave that will shift control of the Senate and give the GOP majorities in both houses of Congress. Yet, the actual Senate contests in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina are considered too close to call. This implies that despite President Obama’s fall in public confidence as his economic and foreign policies have faltered; the Republicans have not presented voters with a strong case for putting them into power. And if this is true now, it should present GOP strategists – and conservatives who pin their hopes on the party – with considerable worries going into the 2016 presidential campaign. Without a sound platform, the lackluster list of Republican candidates for the White House does not engender confidence. There is already a strong temptation to just run Mitt Romney again despite the fact that his bumbling 2012 campaign highlighted the most unattractive aspects of the GOP message.
Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, veered into domestic politics in the September/October issue with the theme “See America; Land of Decay and Dysfunction.” Two essays on the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement were included, penned by Byron York, Chief Political Correspondent for the Washington Enquirer and a regular Fox News commentator; and David Frum, a special assistant to President George W. Bush, who has written a long series of books on right-wing politics.
York’s focus was on young “reformers” in the GOP, but they do not live up to their billing. He starts by citing a speech by then House Majority Leader Eric Cantor about connecting with the middle class. Cantor recognized that most people desire “a good job with an income that will allow them to support their family.” He urged Republicans to reach out to the “vast and troubled” middle class, if the party is to win majorities at the national level.
Unfortunately, Cantor’s own behavior was not in line with his speech. His primary defeat turned on the GOP leadership’s support for immigration reform that would grant amnesty to 11 million illegal residents. This proletariat of cheap labor limits the opportunities of citizens to earn their way into the middle class. The substitution of foreign for American workers has been particularly bad in construction, an industry that has lost another 400,000 jobs under Obama. It should be noted that Cantor resigned his House seat rather than fill out his term to become vice chairman of an investment bank, thus reinforcing the country club image of the GOP.
Amnesty is deeply unpopular with the GOP base and the general public, but the party leaders back it because they have been ordered to do so by the Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President Tom Donohue even threatened the GOP last Spring, “If the Republicans don’t do it, they shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016.” The reason being that Big Business donors would not fund the campaign.
Another alleged reformer is Rep. Paul Ryan, who had been Mitt Romney’s running mate. Yet, he is also a Chamber pet. He has said that in the lame duck session, he would support granting “trade promotion authority” to President Obama. For a party that has been complaining about presidential power grabs, expanding Obama’s control over the economy via TPA cannot be done before the election any more than Obama can grant amnesty to illegal aliens before the vote; the backlash would be seismic.
“Free trade” has done more damage to the foundations of American power and prosperity that anything a foreign enemy has ever done by violence. Between the creation of the World Trade Organization in 2001 and the financial crisis of 2008, one third of all U.S. manufacturing jobs were lost as factories closed and production was “outsourced” to cheap labor countries. The U.S. trade deficit in goods last year was $688.7 billion, a major drag on economic recovery. With such a dire employment situation for Americans, policies should not be creating jobs for foreigners whether overseas or at home.
The shift was not just economic as China gained the bulk of these jobs in new plants embodying a massive transfer of technology and capital. Beijing is using its new capabilities to challenge the security and strategic interests of the U.S. and its allies across Asia and beyond. But since the Chamber of Commerce does not care about such things, neither does the GOP leadership. More of the same failed trade policy is not reform and it will not attract the middle class worker. When the Republicans were last dominant, between the Civil War and the Great Depression, the party favored policies that protected American producers and concentrated on building national strength.
In both trade and immigration policy, Big Business wants to weaken the middle class because it does not want to meet middle class payrolls. In the long run, this is foolish even for the captains of industry. The Democratic Left will gain new political strength from enfranchised immigrants and an alienated middle class, strength that will be used against private business on an unprecedented scale. It will also be used to assail conservative social values and weaken national security. If the GOP is only “the party of business” it cannot provide the kind of governance that a great nation needs, and thus will not be supported over time by the public.
In the same issue of Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama, a senior fellow at the Stanford University, questions whether democracy can overcome the influence of special interests groups to rule for the common good. Frum also worries if the GOP can escape being dominated by rich donors who can provide money but not votes. Frum sees a “radicalization of Republican donors” pushing the party into even more elitist/special interest positions. Limited government is not the same as anarchy; the public still expects office holders to do their duty in those areas of legitimate state authority including education, infrastructure, basic services, economic growth, defense, law and order.
The conservative movement must provide the solution, raising a national agenda to which the GOP must adhere. The party must follow a higher calling generated by those with a wider view of society and a firmer set of principles. It is only by building a strong national character that prosperity and security can be sustained in the face of decadent and socialist notions that can seduce those not grounded in proper values and loyalties.
Only one worthy reform is mentioned by York; shifting tax reform from broad rate reductions – which no longer have much effect since the major cuts under President Reagan – to targeted cuts. The best target is middle class families. Raising the tax credit for children is justified on the basis of the cost of child-rearing but it will also “encourage family growth,” something needed to reverse decades of negative demographic trends. As Frum notes, abortion rates have dropped to the lowest level since 1973, a trend that should be supported by pro-natal policies. For too long welfare programs have encouraged the break up of families by subsidizing out-of-wedlock births, generating a myriad set of social problems. It is long past time to reward traditional family behavior.
York says the reformers want to move away from the legacy of Ronald Reagan. While it is true that events have changed in 30 years, the theme of the Reagan Revolution must remain at the core of the conservative movement: “Let’s Make American Great Again” was Reagan’s winning campaign slogan after the debacle of the 1970s when the Left surrendered to enemies overseas and to malaise at home. The country is in that fix again and needs national, not special interest, leadership.
William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.