The GOP and the Vision Thing

Julie Ann Kessler

December 1, 1994

If Republicans want to make sure that their gains in this election stick, they may want to ask themselves what made 40 years of Democratic rule in the Congress possible in the first place. Are the voters really interested in overhauling the long dominant Democratic agenda, or are they merely interested in more efficient administration of Democratic programs? Do voters really want Republican representation or do they just want someone, anyone, other than a Democrat? To answer these questions, we must first know what it is that Republicans have to overcome.

Even before the GOP was swept out of office in 1954, their credibility as a party had been seriously undermined by Franklin Roosevelt and the “New Deal Democrats.” Recall that Roosevelt and his allies were intensely partisan. They called Republicans “Tories” and “economic royalists.” Generations of voters grew up believing that to be an American was to be a Democrat. New Dealers succeeded in building for themselves one of the most long-standing and reliable coalitions of voters in American history. Roosevelt had argued that “enlightened administration” would make men truly free because it had the power to make them less needy. The role of government and economics would now be to serve man, but serve in the sense of provide, not protect. Roosevelt and the New Deal promised to provide clearinghouses for our needs, not to guard our rights.

In other words, FDR had a new understanding of our Declaration of Independence and of our Constitution. This was most clear in his 1944 Annual Message to Congress which offered “a second Bill of Rights,” promising, among other things, a right to “recreation.” Roosevelt couched his rhetoric in the patriotic symbols of our past. He argued that his task was merely to accomplish the promises of the Founding. This new understanding and supplementation of our founding principles was very persuasive. Indeed, it was so persuasive as to convince the majority of Republican politicians in the decades following to talk about their principles in New Deal terms. By and large, Republicans did not argue with New Dealers about the legitimacy of their agenda–about whether it was indeed Constitutional for them to expand the role and functions of the Federal government–instead, they talked about ways (e.g., tax cuts) to achieve more efficiently New Deal ends.

Republicans should also remember that 1994 is not the first time they have claimed to achieve a realignment. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s victory brought with it a majority in the Senate. This was deemed the “Reagan Revolution” and hope sprung eternal that it would be the death knell of the Democratic stranglehold on the Congress and, therefore, the American agenda. Of course, Republicans maintained control of the Presidency for 12 years but Congress quickly slipped out of their grasp and government growth flourished.

Why? Because there was no realignment. The majority of Americans remained Democrats. The famous “Reagan Democrats” and the “Silent Majority” of Nixon days were never energized enough to vocalize their support through active partisanship. As the size and scope of Government grew, and the evidence of receding freedoms, morals, and safety mounted, Republicans talked about the evils of the deficit. But even convincing people of the proposition that the deficit is evil doesn’t necessarily persuade them that the way to end the deficit is to eliminate the welfare state and return the federal government to its constitutional functions. Republicans never made that argument, though. Instead, they led voters to believe that the problem with government is that it is not run like a business. If it were only more efficient and cost-effective, all of our problems would be solved. This, however, misses the point. Not only does it leave the question of justice unanswer
ed, the deficit issue, by itself, does nothing to persuade voters that Republicans are the party of America, the party that would restore constitutional government. Though money managers are useful people to have around when things get tight, one doesn’t necessarily choose them for friendship or partisanship. After all, they have a reputation for being stingy.

The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 may well be remembered as a “wake-up call” for Republicans. Although it should be remembered that Clinton’s victory was, in large part, due to the entry of Ross Perot in the race, Republicans should never forget that Perot’s supporters in 1992 should have been Bush voters. Their support for Perot should have taught Republicans two lessons: first, that moderates like Bush seem indecisive and untrustworthy; and, second, that the Republican argument about the deficit did not succeed in persuading people to become loyal Republicans. Perot’s harangues about the deficit got him the support of all of those voters who could be counted upon to be mobilized solely on the basis of that issue.

With that we come to 1994 and the phenomenal success of the Republicans. By now, we all know that the media’s portrayal of this election as an “anti-incumbent” election was baloney. No Republican incumbent lost a House, Senate, or gubernatorial seat. But does it also follow that the media’s second explanation for the phenomenon–an anti-government mood–is equally absurd? It is not absurd only if this thesis recognizes that to be anti-government in this day and age is to be anti-Democratic. And if this thesis reminds us that “anti-Democratic” does not equal “pro-Republican” (at least not for very long), I would call it a healthy reminder of what remains to be done.

It may sound harsh or pessimistic to begin criticizing this new majority so soon out of the gate. But what exactly did the vast gains of the GOP mean? How will the party look in government as opposed to opposition? Amazingly, this remains unclear. Everyone talks, in one way or another, about reducing the size of government. Even Bill Clinton is talking about reducing government. But the argument advanced for reducing government is, in some ways reminiscent of the argument about the deficit. Republicans are not being very clear about why we should reduce the size of government, or, to put it in even better terms, they are not being very clear about what the proper and Constitutional role of the federal government should be.

When the GOP talks about how to reduce government there are two political types that often emerge: the “policy wonk” and the “generalizer.” The wonk will have specific programs or specific parts of specific programs that he’ll argue should be cut. He’ll talk about the numbers, the impact this cut will have on the deficit and, perhaps, if he’s at all political, the polls. The generalizer talks in terms that are more grand, but not quite different from the wonk’s. He’ll say, “We’ve gotta cut welfare, stop that cycle of dependency. We’ve gotta stop duplicating our efforts with wasteful programs. We’ve gotta be more fiscally responsible.” The wonk and the generalizer may differ with respect to style or their opinions about particular programs, but their agreement with the involvement of the federal government in the kinds of programs they discuss is implicit. They both discuss reduction for the sake of budgeting and vote getting. There is no disc
ussion of Constitutionality. Reduce their size, yes. Reduce their role? No way!

Newt Gingrich and Phil Gramm have done much in recent weeks to raise the level of discussion. They have been firm in their resolve to cut out many welfare programs. When reporters questioned Gramm with stunned and stuttering voices about whether he really intended to make the cuts, his response was a stoic and manful, “Yes,” with no apologetic shamefacedness. After years of Republican casuistry, it is indeed difficult to contain one’s joy at such a response. Unfortunately, more is needed. Republicans have to continue to explain not only why this cutting is the best measure of compassion, but also why it is the only Constitutional thing to do.

The bad news is that one is unlikely to hear Republican leaders talk about the Constitution without mentioning the word “Amendment” soon thereafter. We should be wary of amending our Constitution to achieve policy goals. The danger of the proposed GOP amendments (school prayer, term limits, balanced budget) to the Constitution lies not only in the possibility that they might undermine respect for our fundamental law, but also in the nod to FDR that is implicit in these amendments. To pass amendments on these questions is tantamount to admitting that FDR and the New Deal Democrats were right all along. The Constitution was on their side, now we’ll fix it to be on our side. Unless and until the Constitutional argument is made correctly and won, it is unlikely that a Republican realignment will hold.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the charge in the most vast and decisive realignment of modern times. The Republican task since then has been to overcome that victory. Until now, it was fairly clear that we had been unsuccessful. Now, our numbers in the House, Senate and Governorships seem to proclaim our victory. We would do well, however, to remember that politics is not a precise science like mathematics, and numbers don’t tell us much. Roosevelt’s achievement is not only measured by the number of politicians he helped to get elected, but by the extent to which his understanding of what constituted fair and just government has taken root in our institutions, our politics, our customs, and, most importantly, our understanding of the Constitution. Roosevelt’s “vision” is not, I would argue, dead. It is still the guiding principle in both of our political parties. Until the Republicans change that, no amount of any other kind of “change” will rest
ore our Republic.

Julie Kessler, a former Ashbrook Scholar, is pursuing her Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, CA.