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You can make a case that it wasn’t quite the Democratic sweep or the full
vindication for the president that the Democrats and many in the media are
claiming gingerly now and will be trumpeting as if it were one of the
self-evident foundations of scientific knowledge in a month or so. And it is
true, as Speaker Newt has pointed out, that Republicans still control both
houses of Congress and that holding onto majorities in both Houses for three
elections in a row is something Republicans haven’t done in 70 years or so.

But the truth is — even though numerous mitigating explanations can be
conjured — that the 1998 elections were a disaster for congressional
Republicans. And while Mr. Gingrich might have seen it coming a few days before
and tried to refocus attention on issues like lower taxes where Republicans
might have an advantage, it was too little, much too late, and given the record
a transparent bit of hypocrisy. And now that it has happened, it is all too
likely that the Republicans will learn the wrong lessons from the debacle.

If congressional Republicans had emphasized a few key issues much earlier
in the session, passed legislation like serious tax cuts and an overt rejection
of the Kyoto economy-killing climate-change treaty and let President Clinton
veto them, they would at least have given voters a reason to vote for them
beyond not being the party defending and justifying presidential perjuries.
Heck, if they had simply avoided passing that pork-laden transportation bill
earlier in the year and abstained from porking-as-usual for the rest of the
year they might have been different enough for most voters.

There would have been risk in such a course. The welfare-regulatory state has
created so many constituencies with a stake (or at least a perceived stake,
which is almost the same as reality in politics though it can be subject to
persuasion) in its continued growth that an effective electoral majority for a
program of downsizing and reforming the behemoth just might not be there.

But if Republicans are not going to be the party of smaller government, if they
are content simply to be the not-quite-so-fast branch of the Big Government
Party, there is little reason for them to continue to exist as a distinct
party, to pretend that they offer Americans a real alternative to Clintonism.
If they are simply a different nose at the trough representing slightly
different constituencies seeking to pick the taxpayers’ pockets for their own
benefit, they could at least have the common decency to abandon the rhetoric
about limited government, devolution of power and fiscal responsibility.

The Brothers Bush might offer a different method of presenting a Republican
agenda. Obtuse as they are, however, the Republicans are likely to learn the
wrong lessons even here.

Despite the fact that conservatives might look at their lineage and the fact
that the media haven’t exploited their vulnerabilities (yet) and draw certain
conclusions, George W. and Jeb are not quite the reincarnation of Rockefeller
Republicanism. In some respects — especially in the fact that they are using
the laboratory of the states to experiment with different approaches to
persistent problems rather than trying to impose solutions from the national
level — they might even be more conservative than the congressional branch of
the party, at least as reflected in this year’s (non) agenda.

The Bushes and other GOP governors are far from perfect from either a
traditionalist or a free-market conservative perspective. But they have
actually implemented various forms of welfare reform, they have actually worked
with and encouraged community-based philanthropic organizations as alternatives
to the Nanny State. Their relative success at attracting women and minority
voters stems more from their avoidance of or diplomatic way of dealing with
hot-button issues like abortion, quotas, school choice and welfare than from
actually adopting overtly liberal positions.

That and the ability to smile, to mingle with people of different ethnic and
social backgrounds without apparent discomfort or embarrassment. They could do
better from a policy perspective, but the Bush Boys have somehow managed not to
seem insincere when they treat people as individuals rather than as stereotypes
to be exploited or feared, or tokens or strictly as members of a voting bloc.
They may well not be sincere, but the first lesson of politics is that if you
can fake sincerity the rest is a snap. And it doesn’t take much sincerity to
defuse seemingly deep-seated hostile attitudes.

The lesson, then, is not to become even more “moderate” or more friendly to
government programs, but to be even more devoted to the free market and limited
government, but in a more intelligent way.

What if conservative and free-market types could combine that kind of comfort
with others with a devastating critique of the failures of the big-government
nostrums to do much of real value for minorities or working and poor people?
What if they could convey the sincere conviction that the best hope for those
who feel they have been left behind is a growing economy impelled by lower
taxes and less regulation rather than dependency-creating spending programs?

Since both the critique and the prescription have the unusual (especially in
politics) advantage of being valid, they might just make a start on dismantling
the welfare/regulatory state with the enthusiastic support of many who have
heretofore supported it, at least tacitly.

To succeed, however., Republicans would have to walk the walk of smaller
government, lower taxes, less regulation and personal responsibility rather
than grabbing for their “fair share” of taxpayer loot and government favors
when they have the power. Do they really believe the rhetoric enough to act on
it?

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