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Spring is in the air, and with the cycle of seasons comes again the sight of the Republicans in Congress girding their loins for battle with the Democrats on the budget. Relieved to have the messy Clinton business behind them, the Republicans are resolved to get back on to the winning ground of their “core” agenda — economic liberty and political decentralization. They are, according to the Washington Post, “muscling their fiscal 2000 budget through” committee, “rejecting attacks” that they are insufficiently concerned with Medicare, and “killing Democratic attempts to delay or scale back” tax cuts.
Sounds like they mean business. Wouldn’t it be nice if this time Republicans carried the day on the policy issues that have made up the Republican agenda since Ronald Reagan? Are you holding your breath?
I think it is time for some straight talk about why the Republicans in Congress have lost these fights in the past, and will probably lose them again. Let’s talk about what it will take for them to win.
Some people think that Republicans should only talk about the things that we, as they say, “agree on.” This is code for the suppression of the moral questions that matter most, in hopes of achieving electoral success and triumph of the Republican agenda. Abortion and other nasty and divisive moral topics are to be avoided, so that Republicans can win on tax and budget issues, and achieve an overall rollback of federal power.
Let’s examine this strategy for Republican political success. What are the things we Republicans all allegedly “agree on”? I can tell you quite briefly. One simple principle runs through every part of the agenda that the Republican Party agrees on. We believe in the people’s ability and capacity to govern themselves. Democrats believe only in the power of government. It is that simple.
On Social Security, Republicans insist that we respect the capacity of people to make good judgments about how to use their own money to provide for their retirement. Republicans know that people will get a better return on their money if they are allowed to invest it in things that bring a larger return, rather than investing it in the phony promises of government, and in the patronage system of politicians. We know it will work better, and will mean a more secure retirement future for our citizens. Bill Clinton responds with the suggestion that we let the government invest (i.e. spend) the money for us.
Republicans trust the people; Democrats trust government.
The same thing is true on education. Republicans have developed an agenda on education based on one crystal clear principle — we should not allow our educational system to be dominated by politicians and educrats and bureaucrats. We should instead turn control of that system back over to the parents, who have the responsibility before God for their children.
Republicans trust the people; Democrats trust government.
On tax policy as well, the cutting edge proposal of Republicans is simply to abolish the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax that puts the people back in control of their dollars — ending the pre-emptive claim on our paychecks that the income tax represents. We know that the path to this country’s economic prosperity and strength, as proven every single day since the Reagan era tax cuts started to take effect, is in giving the money back to the people of this country letting them make the miracle happen — not their politicians and not their government.
Republicans trust . . . . well, you get it.
In case you haven’t noticed, for forty years Republicans have been making the best arguments. We have had the best facts and figures, the best economic arguments, and the best empirical arguments. Studies show that our way will work better when it comes to producing quality results in education, and that we will get two and three times the amount of effectiveness for every dollar we spend on education if we follow the path of choice, respecting parental authority, and turning schools back over to their people, instead of the government.
The same thing has been simply demonstrated with regard to tax policy, welfare policy, environmental policy, and the entire realm of policy. The principles of limited and decentralized government have been vindicated in argument and in our experience — for those who care to look.
We know it works. So why do we keep losing the political battles? Why is every new attempt to institute our agenda at a fundamental level blunted by Democratic counter-attacks that succeed, at the end of the day, in increasing government spending and control?
I’ll tell you why. It is very simple. It is because after the Republicans make all those empirical and economic arguments, the Democrats trump us every time with a moral argument.
“This is all well and good, but the people of this country can’t be trusted. They won’t do what is right. They won’t make the right decisions. They don’t have the moral capacity to do the right thing.” And then they accuse Republicans of being callous. And then the federal education budget, or the welfare budget, or whatever, is increased.
Recently Bill Clinton rejected the idea of using our supposed budget surplus to give large tax cuts — to allow Americans to keep more of their own money — by saying that it would it be wrong to let Americans decide what to do with the surplus money.
And he literally said that the reason large tax cuts would be wrong is that people wouldn’t do the right thing with the money. We need to take care of the elderly with Social Security; we need to take care of the poor with government programs; we need to take care of the children with government-run education. Bill Clinton believes, and is willing to state publicly, that the people of this country can’t be trusted to make the right decisions regarding their own money. They won’t use it the right way.
Republicans, of course, disagree with him on that. If we expect to win the fight over tax cuts, we better make sure that the American people disagree with him on that. But there is a problem that those who want to suppress the moral agenda in politics so that they can “win” political victory should think about.
We trust the people — that is, we trust ourselves and our fellow citizens. They trust only the power of government. But what if the Democratic argument that people won’t do the right thing is true?
What if it is true that, by and large, the people of this country are so depraved that parents won’t meet their responsibilities to their children, won’t care about the welfare of their children, won’t put their children’s interests first? What if instead they will use and abuse children as objects of their convenience and their will, caring for them only when it is pleasing to do so?
Could “we the people” trust ourselves then?
What if government does give citizens their money back in the form of tax cuts, and then we discover that the American people are no longer willing to use their money to care for their neighbor? What if they will let the children and vulnerable starve in the streets? What if they will let poverty and degradation overtake the glories of this country, until it sickens us?
Would we trust the people then?
And what if it is true that Americans have become so profligate and so uncaring that they won’t have the sense of responsibility to set aside for their future, and make the right judgments about their retirement?
Would the Republican way work then?
Every policy in the Republican agenda assumes that we can trust the people of America to make right judgments about important things, even when that is hard, and even when passions and temptations urge otherwise. Republican policies, in short, are designed with grown-ups in mind — people fit for self-government.
And for 40 years the Democrats have prevented the effective triumph of those policies by calling into question the moral decency of the American people, and telling us that government must do what an immature and selfish people will not.
Republicans who want to forget about and “move beyond” the Clinton scandals of the past year, and to ignore the deep implications of those scandals for the moral crisis of the American people, are forgetting something critical. The Clinton scandals have permitted the Democrats to argue more convincingly then ever before that the American people do not have good moral judgment. If we want to win arguments about all of the particular policies we propose, each of which assumes that the American people can be trusted to make good judgments, then we cannot ignore the question mark that Democrats have placed behind the character and judgment of this people when it comes to doing what is right.
Republicans have deluded themselves into believing that Democrat leaders are in love with Bill Clinton in spite of his vices. That is not true. They love Bill Clinton BECAUSE of his vices. They love Bill Clinton because he is the poster boy of American moral depravity. Democrat politicos have stuck with Bill Clinton because every American who identifies with Bill Clinton identifies with someone who can’t control his passions no matter what is at stake; who can’t keep his promises, no matter what is at stake; who won’t respect his duties and obligations, no matter what is at stake.
If that is the kind of people that we have become, then every last policy the Republican Party proposes is wrong. Because we cannot trust such a people to do what is right with their liberty. A nation that identifies with Bill Clinton is a nation in need of the paternalistic care of the big government Democrats.
Why are Republicans accused of being callous and insensitive? Because if we want to turn the welfare system over to people who don’t care about the poor and won’t do what is right, that means that we don’t care about the poor. If we are willing to turn people over to a system that will expose them to selfishness and lack of moral decency, we are indeed callous and insensitive. And if we say that we want to leave control of schools and education dollars in the hands of parents, and the Democrats can plausibly say that a significant number of American parents are abusive and will not care for their children, then we will seem callous. Because if we advocate turning the future of our children over to people who don’t have the moral capacity to do what is right, they will suffer rather than prosper.
Aren’t we tired of losing every time a demagogue in Congress shouts a slogan about who will care for the starving children? We will continue to lose until we can answer with sincere confidence that the people of this country will take care of their own.
If we lose the moral argument, we will lose every other argument. If we cannot erase the question mark behind the character of the American people, our agenda of liberty will not prevail. If we cannot restore the confidence we must have in our own moral capacity, then we will not be able convincingly to argue that government policy should have confidence in that moral capacity.
Two consecutive Republican presidential candidates have been defeated because they acted as if the moral heart of the Republican Party was the black sheep of the family. A congressional majority that could have faced down the depravity of the Clinton White House has been almost entirely squandered. I am tired of hearing those who have lead us to defeat after defeat in the post-Reagan years lecture the moral conservatives in the Republican Party about how to win. If the Republican Party wants to rally truly effective support for its agenda of limiting government and enabling economic enterprise — and it certainly should and must — then it must turn with courage and confidence to the task of reminding the citizens of this nation of the moral foundations of responsible self-government.