Ed Driscoll

Can't Win Without Playing Offense

When I live-blogged Republican Senators last month for Pajamas, I noticed a lot of big government bureaucratic lingo and a distinct lack of conservatism from guys who advertise themselves as, you know, conservatives. In an essay titled, “Republicanism In Decline“, Tony Snow writes that this lack of spark began only months after Republicans won back the House and Senate in November of 1994:

Within months of seizing power in 1995, Republicans began backing away from Big Ideas, from tort reform to the necessary overhaul of the Social Security system. They started consulting pollsters to assay “correct” issues and positions. They played it safe — or so they thought.

Of course, while the Republicans have been playing the prevent defense, Democrats haven’t exactly had a hard-charging offense on the other side:

This helps explain one of the great ironies of the age. We live in what ought to be an era of Republican triumphalism. The president’s one reliable bit of domestic-policy conservatism, his tax-cut agenda, has succeeded brilliantly. The most recent Commerce Department figures peg the third quarter economic growth rate at a sizzling 4.3 percent — despite the ravages of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the oil shocks that followed.

Republicans have won the battle over whether centralized bureaucracies can eradicate poverty, or perform social services more efficiently than private or volunteer operations. Throughout the country, the same patterns appear: Where elected officials govern with a light touch and without imposing onerous tax and regulatory burdens, prosperity flourishes — and people flock to the scene. “progressive” states, on the other hand, are becoming empty husks, with more rigid class distinctions than in any other section of the country.

The GOP also wins big on values. Virtually every time the ACLU files a lawsuit, Democrats lose supporters. Despite these advantages, however, the GOP founders. Its Washington potentates simply refuse to embrace the party’s ideals or successes (including the war). They have forgotten the most important rule of political survival: If you want to remain an incumbent for long, you don’t jettison your principles. You act on them.

When House Speaker Denny Hastert broke arms to secure votes for a pork-packed highway bill, calling the legislation a “jobs bill,” it was an embarrassment. When the president signed a campaign-finance bill he called unconstitutional, he seemed to lack not only conviction, but vision.

Fortunately, irate constituents roused some conservatives from their dogmatic slumbers. Young Republicans rebelled against the apostasy of their elders, especially in the matter of the federal budget, and state parties seized the initiative on everything from spending limitations to school choice.

Capitol Hill Republicans now admit their Democratic colleagues don’t want peace — they want the Alamo. So the GOP is fighting back. Hastert approved calling the bluff of anti-victory Democrats last week by demanding a floor vote on the idea of vamoosing Iraq immediately. He scored another triumph this week by restoring the good name of the National Christmas Tree.

Who knows, he may even figure out the Paradox of Incumbency. Politicians who run just to protect incumbency may save their seats, but only by destroying their party’s heart and soul. If you really want to build lasting power in politics, you need to forget about mere incumbency — and remember the principles that got you elected in the first place.

The Gipper understood that since you’re going to be crucified by the left and the media (but I repeat myself), you might as well try to implement your vision, rather than making nice and getting along. Somehow, that lesson keeps getting forgotten by a bunch of guys who seem to want to play nice with their opponents, rather than playing to win.

Update: Hugh Hewitt has a look at Republican inertia as well.