Republican Responsibility

J.D. Crouch II

February 1, 1995

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. says, in trying to make sense of the recent election, that Americans "contemporary anger" is puzzling because in his view, "there is nothing specific at stake." The economy, he believes, is doing well and employment is on the rise. Even foreign policy, he believes, is in good shape. He wants us to believe that the smashing Republican victory in the midterm elections is a "free-floating anger" caused by technological change and the microchip. Who are you kidding, Dr. Schlesinger?

Americans in large droves rose above partisan politics and parochial issues and voted in favor of a return to limited government. If there was an issue in 1994, it was liberty and the protection of liberty from a government that, in all its "compassion" for the people, believes it, not the citizens, knows best on practically all matters of human concern. Notwithstanding the dubious accuracy of the 30-year cyclical hypothesis that Dr. Schlesinger defends, it is precisely the attempts by the Democratic Party to break this cycle–through ever-increasing government dependence and regulation–that American citizens are voting against.

But in one sense Dr. Schlesinger is correct. Elections, no matter how decisive, do not a revolution make. The failure of Republicans under Ronald Reagan to limit the size and power of government is testament. The central question now is whether the politics of the next two years will remain true to the purpose Americans tasked Republicans to achieve, or will it be perverted by the business as usual politics of the last decade.

The vote last November was not an anarchist’s plea against all government, it was for drastically curtailing the government’s size and its involvement in the lives of citizens. Americans believe as outgoing Senator Malcolm Wallop recently wrote: "Today government touches almost everything in America and harms almost everything it touches."

This election was not an angry, irrational lashing out at incumbents, but a reasoned choice by the electorate that the Republican party is the last best hope of curtailing runaway federal power. Not a single Republican incumbent lost their seat in either house of Congress. If government is not different in two years, or if the Republican Congress does not at least force the Democrats and the President to strike down proposals to limit and transform government, the fate that befell so many Democrats in 1994 will befall Republicans in 1996. 1996 could well be the beginning of the end for both major parties as Americans turn to a third force. (The surprising strength of Libertarian candidates across the country in this election points to this trend.)

1994 was not just a simplistic vote for "change"–the word the White House spin doctors have tried to apply to the Democrat’s disaster–but a vote for change in a certain direction. The American people want government smaller, they want to depend on their own initiative and rekindle in all citizens a sense of individual responsibility, and they understand that big government has become a destructive force to the social, economic and political cohesion of society.

Let’s face it: The big government Democrats are down, but they are not out. Many conservative Democrats, of course, share the basic views espoused by Republicans in this election, and many of those same Democrats held onto their seats because they did. Many of them will go on to become Republicans if the party fulfills its mandate as Senator Richard Shelby courageously decided to do the day after the election. But the ethos of the Democratic party has not changed and therefore it will not admit that government from Washington is the beginning of many of our most basic problems. They will continue to ask Americans to "believe" in government as the solution to all that ails society. This means it is imperative that Republicans force the issue of returning to limited government if the revolution of 1994 is not to end in a big government coup d’etat two years from now.

I see two scenarios in the near future. Scenario one is a return to business as usual. As Senator Lauch Faircloth put it, when Democrats propose to burn the Capitol down, Republicans see fit to object and propose that it be burned down over three years. Amid the calls for bipartisanship (of course from Democrats who have rammed unpopular laws and policies down Republicans throats for the last two years), the Republican leadership of the House and Senate could adopt a consensus-oriented approach to politics. Issues like health care reform, crime, campaign financing, etc. will be resolved in that "inside the beltway" style without tackling (or even admitting to) the fundamental concern that swept these Republicans to power: Limit the size and power of government or forever lose the trust of the American people in small "r" republican government. The stakes are that high.

If Republicans choose this course, they will surely be turned out in large numbers in 1996. The electorate may decide to exact revenge on both parties–a plague on all houses–but the Republicans will suffer disproportionately both because their followers do not have the vested interests in big government that so many Democrat’s constituents have and because it was Republicans, after all, who were given the chance to set government right again. Republicans could go the way of the Whigs before them who would not act as the issues of slavery and succession were tearing the nation apart. The Republican party might disintegrate just by standing for nothing when the country is crying for one that will sharply define the central issue of our day–getting big government out of people’s lives.

Scenario two takes the hard road. Hard because in the short-term it will appear partisan. It will not pass many new laws. It will not provide for signing ceremonies at the White House or blue ribbon bipartisan commissions bent on compromise. This road requires that Republicans band together–and look beyond parochial state or district concerns–to send the President a series of clear, issue-defining bills that will get federal government off the backs of the people and onto doing those limited set of tasks for which it was constituted.

We all know what such a legislative agenda looks like. (1) True welfare reform that prevents people from spending lives and generations on the dole and that does not tear apart the family of its recipients, sending thousands of its progeny into the crime culture. (2) A balanced budget amendment and a line item veto. (3) A slashing of taxes and a revamping of the tax code to eliminate "progressive" taxation that consumes the incentive to create wealth. (4) A restoration of the strength of and the pride in our armed forces by increasing defense spending, and taking care of the most pressing threats to U.S. national security, in particular the building of an SDI defense of the American homeland. (5) Repealing the trash in the crime bill, especially the limits on the rights of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves, and passing measures that promote strong local law enforcement and the individual’s role in preventing crime. (6) Abolishing unneeded agencies and depart
ments of government that are the domain of individuals or local government, such as the Departments of Energy and Education. (7) Above all, it is passing a federal term limits act that forever eliminates the career politician and reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy, including reducing the size of congressional staffs.

Government must not just govern better, it must govern less. At the same time, it can restore public confidence in the moral authority of limited government by staying out of the business of mandating social and political behavior–such as condom peddling–while erecting towering obstacles to even the mentioning of religion in public settings.

Two years out from implementing this kind of agenda, two outcomes are possible. If the Democrats in Congress and the President embrace these ideas and begin the long process of scaling-back government, the country will be better off and faith in republican government will be strengthened. Republicans will know doubt get most of the credit for these changes, but there will be plenty of credit to go around if Democrats cooperate or even outdo the
Republican reforms.

If the President and the new congressional minority choose to block this agenda, however, they will face the voters alone in 1996 with nothing to stand on. Americans will put the Republican nominee in the White House and strengthen Republican majorities in both houses. The Democratic Party could quite literally go the way of its once powerful 19th-century cousin, consigned to a long period of political ignominity through its support for the entrenched constituents of big government. In this event, the Democrats must choose the future for their party.

The revolution of 1994 has just begun. How the parties act on the message sent to both of them this last election will determine not just their own political fortunes, but the very strength and vitality of republican government for the next 50 years.

Jack D. Crouch II is Associate Professor, Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Southwest Missouri State University.