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How the GOP Can ‘Run Against the Center’

Republicans' best shot at success in 2010 is to craft a campaign against the Washington-centric policies of the Democrats.

by
Jennifer Rubin

Bio

June 9, 2009 - 12:36 am

First he insisted on investigating Rep. John Murtha. Now he’s objecting to the government-mandated closing of hundreds of car dealerships. No, it’s not a Republican (although many Republicans agree on both counts). It’s House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Is he onto something that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and even the president have missed? Perhaps.

Perhaps Hoyer — trying to sidestep potential blame if the 2010 elections go poorly for Democrats — has been reading the wise counsel of Michael Barone. Barone advises politicians to run “against the center” — the center of power in Washington, D.C., that is. He explained in a recent column:

This center includes the Treasury, with its $700 billion of TARP funds voted last fall to purchase toxic assets from financial institutions and used instead to quasi-nationalize banks and preserve union benefits for employees and retirees of bankrupt auto companies. It includes the Federal Reserve, which has been vastly increasing the money supply. It includes a federal government whose $787 billion economic stimulus has so far failed to lower the unemployment rate from where the government projected it would be without the stimulus package.

There has been an historic aversion in American politics, running through the Progressive era and continuing in every populist movement up through the Tea Party protests, to concentrated power. Big Government, Big Labor, Big Oil — you can see the pattern. “Big” is not such an attractive attribute in American politics and runs headlong into Americans’ love of independence, entrepreneurial spirit, and affection for the “little guy.”

And there are plenty of big things to be concerned about inside the Beltway. We are, after all, seeing the largest aggregation of power in Washington, D.C., since the New Deal. And even then FDR did not have the nerve to nationalize car companies or tell an insurance company to rip up its compensation contracts with its employees.

Moreover, we have just begun. Gov. Mitch Daniels has termed it “shock and awe statism” — the voracious appetite for accumulating more and more power in Washington, D.C. Cap-and-trade seeks to regulate all energy output and emissions from inside the Beltway. Nationalized health care with a public “option” means health-care coverage run by government bureaucrats. And the Employee Free Choice Act means not only loss of the secret ballot but labor contracts imposed by government arbitrators rather than reached through negotiations between private employers and labor unions.

So what would a winning formula aimed at Washington’s power grabs look like?

For starters, as Hoyer suggests, any convincing anti-Washington agenda must begin with fulfilling Nancy Pelosi’s promise to “drain the swamp.” Republicans and savvy Democrats would do well to insist that those under investigation in the metastasizing PMA Group scandal, including Murtha and Rep. James Moran, be alleviated of their committee posts and be subject to a swift House ethics probe. And that goes for Sen. Chris Dodd and House Ways and Means Chair Charlie Rangel, who retain their own prominent committee chairmanships while beating back ethics investigations. Likewise, anti-Washington agitators  should push for the ouster of Roland Burris, who, it seems, lied to the Senate about his contacts with Blago prior to getting the Senate appointment.

Second, the anti-Washington agenda should put a primacy on personal choice when it comes to health care. The Democrats are offering a health-care plan crafted and directed by the government, with only the “best” procedures reimbursed by the government-approved insurance plan. That’s a far cry from the consumer-friendly, customized service world which voters, especially young voters, have become used to. Smart Republicans should make clear they favor competition, choice, and individually-purchased insurance, not government-run, homogenized health care (which inevitably will be rationed, as has been the case in other industrialized nations which have gone down this road).

Third, the anti-Washington agenda would (as the Tea Party protestors have done) make fiscal discipline its cornerstone. Poll after poll make clear that voters are queasy about the mound of debt which is accumulating and suspect the taxes to pay for it are coming just around the corner. (In the recent Gallup poll, by a 48-46% margin, Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the deficit and by a 51-45% margin they are displeased with his handling of federal spending.) And sure enough, tax ideas are popping up right and left — a soda tax perhaps, or maybe a VAT, or a soak the rich scheme. It all amounts to the same thing — more power and wealth concentrated in Washington and less in the homes and businesses around the country. The anti-Washington forces should push for spending restraint and, rather than tax hikes, tax reform and reductions (e.g., on corporations and capital gains) to spur private economic activity.

Finally, the anti-Washington agenda would seek to place a premium on personal responsibility and end the era of the “bailout nation.” That’s far cry from where we are now. As Matthew Continetti writes:

In the past, the U.S. government allowed private companies to fall apart, confident that new ones would rise in their place. Not the bailout state. The feds already had protected the GSEs and Wall Street. Why not Detroit? The price is “only” $110 billion, compared with trillions to the banks and in guarantees to Fannie and Freddie. The Rust Belt economy, moreover, has been reeling for some time. Liquidating GM and Chrysler could wreak havoc on parts suppliers and other businesses that depend on the auto giants. Better to cushion the blow. …

There’s only one complication. All of this is both misguided and unpopular. American voters have serious misgivings about the TARP and the auto bailout. Those concerns likely will become even more pronounced as government embeds itself deeper into the banking and car sectors. In time, the electorate may even vote for politicians who stand with private enterprise.

Failing companies should, well, fail and government should get out of the business of running industrial enterprises. Sen. Lamar Alexander proposed that the government distribute the GM stock to the taxpayers, thereby ending the era of the Obama Motor Company. That’s a move in the right direction. Next: set a date certain for the end of all government bailouts/take-overs.

All of these measures, of course, are antithetical to the statist, we-know-best philosophy which underlines virtually all of what the president and Democratic Congress hope to achieve. But that is fine. In fact, it’s more than fine. It is the essence of  democratic politics to provide a clear difference in governing visions and allow the voters to decide which they prefer.

And if Barone is right, such an ideological face-off might spell doom for those who think that grabbing and retaining as much power as possible in Washington is the way to earn the public’s support. As Continetti notes: “The political party with a track record of opposition to government overreach, overspending, and overindebtedness — and with proposals to roll back the bailout state — will benefit. It won’t be the Democrats.”

Whether the Republicans will benefit from the Democrats’ misguided zeal for Washington-centric policies will depend on whether they offer, as the saying goes, a choice and not an echo.

Jennifer Rubin blogs at the Washington Post.
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