Thursday, December 15, 2005

Should Republicans Act More Like Democrats?

In an earlier post I discussed Dick Armey’s call for Republicans to return to the basic principles of “lower taxes, less government and more freedom.” But Armey is from the Reagan era. Some Republicans are calling for outright abandonment of those principles, arguing that a party built on the ideology of limited government is ill suited to preside over the expansive government we actually have.

Ross Douthat (an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly) and Reihan Salam (formerly a writer for the New Republic), writing in the Nov. 14 edition of the Weekly Standard have a provocative article entitled the Party of Sam’s Club, where they make such an argument.

Douthat and Salam begin by sounding like Democrats bashing Pres. Bush, but from an insider’s view. “President Bush's domestic policy looks less and less like a visionary twist on traditional conservatism, and more and more like an evolutionary dead end.” They run through a laundry list of what they see as failings of the President and the Congress. They then present their grand plan for breathing new life into the flagging party.

They base their ideas almost wholly on the results of polls. Remember that Dick Armey warned against governing by polls (here), saying, “You can't get your finger on the problem if you've got it in the wind.” Douthat and Salam say that polls show that among those that supported Bush in ’04, few of them are interested in limited government, preferring to use government as a tool to achieve their desires.

Douthat and Salam believe this empowers Republicans to “take the "big-government conservatism" vision that George W. Bush and Karl Rove have hinted at but failed to develop, and give it coherence and sustainability.” They then embark on a lengthy discussion of several programs they believe will steer the government behemoth toward conservative ends and ensure that the Republican Party remains firmly in control.

The suggested programs are breathtakingly socialistic. They include:
  • Paying mothers to have children and rear them at home.

  • “Market-friendly health care reform,” which would require everyone to have health insurance and would eliminate some of the bottlenecks in the existing system.

  • Subsidies to working class men to make “them more desirable marriage partners,” thereby keeping them off the welfare rolls and encouraging them to become responsible fathers.

  • Targeted tax cuts and targeted tax increases that would achieve conservative social engineering goals of more stable families.
Not all of the authors’ suggestions are bad. They make some very good points and are serious about addressing serious social issues. They correctly point out that the decline of the traditional family is a slow train wreck in the making. They offer suggestions for re-ensconcing the traditional family and promoting policies that would strengthen that unit of society. They conclude with this call:
“So today's Republican party should be in favor of helping recent immigrants get ahead and slowing the flow of illegal labor--in favor of providing a helping hand to the hard working poor and cutting subsidies to the idle and shiftless--in favor of a tax policy that favors the working class and the productive rich. Above all, it should be in favor of limited government, and in favor of using government's considerable power to shore up the institution that makes a limited government possible--the beleaguered but resilient American family.”
While that sounds all mom and apple pie, Douthat and Salam’s suggestions will stun many Republicans, especially those that lean Libertarian. Government seems like the least likely entity to do well at these tasks. Nor is it certain that the actions Douthat and Salam suggest will achieve their targeted goals. I’m not sure, for example, that making working class men wards of the state will make them feel more responsible or make them more desirable marriage partners. Nor am I sure that socialist programs will make for limited government.

Douthat and Salam argue that polls show, in essence, that Reagan’s principles are as dead as he is, so the party had better get with the program and do what polls show most people want. Somehow that sounds a lot like Aesop’s fable of the Man, the Boy and the Donkey. No matter what you do you can’t please everyone. But it goes beyond that to abandoning the party’s basic principles.

I would counter that what the polls actually show is a lack of adequate leadership on the party’s basic principles. Douthat and Salam call for “steal[ing] a page from the Democrats' playbook,” but I think Armey is correct, when he says, “When we act like us, we win. When we act like them, we lose.” Prior to Regan becoming president, while many in the GOP used the argument of limited government to bash the Democrats, few in the party power structure actually held it dear to their hearts. However, once Regan achieved control of the party and began to clearly articulate his vision, it was amazing how many were converted – not just within the party, but among the general populace.

Right now Republicans don’t have a strong leader preaching the gospel of limited government, so the ideology lies dormant among the masses. The party needs many of what Armey calls the “Young Turks” to stand up and stir things up. I argue that rather than becoming more like Democrats, Republicans need to become more like Republicans. I’m not arguing for a Reaganesque messiah, but for a return to basic party principles among the leadership and elected officials – and encouraging those officials that aren’t converted to move along. When these principles are articulated strongly and well, the people will respond.


Anonymous said...

Social engineering (no matter how well intentioned) is wrong. It takes away others freedom and usually takes others money to do it. The Republican Party isn't the party of family values. It is the party of individual freedom and responsibility. Douthat and Salam's suggestions are absolutely wrong no matter how well intentioned and socially conservative thier motives are.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Travis, I fully agree. Despite the fact that I realize that the Republican Party includes a lot of people with a variety of views, I guess I'm somewhat dumbfounded to see the social engineering agenda pushed in "conservative" circles and publications.