The Republican Party is suffering from a pathetic leadership void.Recent events amply illustrate the problem. Trent Lott conducted thefirst in a series of 150 Republican town hall meetings around the nationwhere he, Senator Abraham and Governor Engler inaugurated a 10 percentacross-the-board tax cut as a major component of the Republicanlegislative agenda. Abraham said, "In this era of budget surplus,Washington has a moral duty and fiscal responsibility to lower Americantaxes." Congress budget-maven and presidential candidate John Kasich hasalso been making such a tax cut one of the centerpieces of his campaign.
Earlier this week Lott and Speaker Hastert, after almost begging fora meeting with Clinton to demonstrate reconciliation and their desire toachieve bipartisanship (presumably at all costs), led a delegation ofCongressmen to a meeting with the President at the White House. TheRepublican leaders emerged from the meeting all smiles and announcedthat they believed they could work together with the White House -- asif that's laudable. They quickly conceded that their heralded tax planwas all but off the table.
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In an apparent attempt to deflect the obvious implication thatRepublicans had already caved on what had promised to be a banner issuefor them in 2000, Hastert calmly explained that a broad range of taxreform measures were being considered: elimination of the marriagepenalty, estate tax, capital gains. But, of course, this is the sameHastert who said revealingly last week, "When you stake out positions,it's very tough to compromise." Keep in mind that this is the Speaker ofthe House telling us that our positions on policy must be subordinatedto the "higher" goal of compromise. When are these career politiciansgoing to learn that getting things done for the sake of getting thingsdone, without regard for what those "things" are, is not a worthwhilegoal?
When candidate Kasich was questioned about this flip-flop his aideresponded that "we understand it can't necessarily be our way, but we'rehappy everyone is talking about tax cuts. ... If we can't do a 10percent tax cut this year then maybe in the future." His adviser added,"The chances to pass anything sweeping in this Congress are limited bythe six-vote margin, and a 10 percent across the board tax cut is asweeping proposal." That's leadership? 10 percent is sweeping? Can youimagine supply-side bulldog Jack Kemp in the early 1980s surrendering soreadily to the opposition when he was spearheading Reagan's 30 percent(later 25 percent) tax cut? Had he been so anemic and malleable, theReagan tax cuts would have been DOA and the ensuing prosperity theyushered in would never have occurred.
Reagan personified leadership. Political leadership requiresunwavering determination to implement specific policy measures firmlygrounded in core beliefs. Even his worst enemies would acknowledge thatReagan held certain core beliefs, including that the oppressive federaltax system was smothering America's entrepreneurial spirit and economicliberties.
Sure it can be argued that the economic climate at the close ofCarter's term made Reagan's tax proposal more enticing to the Americanpeople. Regardless, if Reagan hadn't truly believed in thegrowth-generating potential of a comprehensive reduction in marginalincome tax rates, he wouldn't have possessed the political will norstamina to persevere in the face of fierce Democratic opposition.
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If Lott et al truly believed in supply side economics as aphilosophical, political and moral matter they wouldn't have proposedsuch a meager ten percent plan in the first place. And they certainlywouldn't have abandoned it at the first signs of any resistance.
Whether the issue is impeachment or tax policy, the current crop ofRepublican players seems more interested in appearing collegial,compromising, civil and yes, bipartisan, than in implementing policiesbased on principle.
This leadership and policy vacuum enveloping Republican politicianscould explain the curious excitement among so many of them over theundeclared candidacy of Governor George W. Bush. Little is known abouthis position on many national issues yet there is an unprecedentedwillingness to embrace his candidacy sight-unseen. This is a sadcommentary on the state of our party.
Bush reportedly has formidable leadership skills, but leadership isonly part of the equation. The Republican Party must remain a party ofideas. Without question the Republican Party is starved for leadership.But for "W" -- or any of the other GOP hopefuls -- to unite the partyand lead it to a meaningful victory in 2000, he must prove to be a manwho has deeply held beliefs that resonate with the party's base andaround which the grass roots will enthusiastically rally.