The GOP wimp factor


WASHINGTON -- Republicans went to worship Barry Goldwater one final time last week. Two jetloads of politicians flew to Arizona from Washington to bid the crusty conservative adieu.

The GOP flock praised Goldwater's salty language and starchy libertarianism. He made the future possible, they said, by letting himself get pressed into the pavement in 1964. They lauded his sacrifice as an unmistakable token of his courage, idealism, fidelity and principle.

Afterward, suitably inspired by his example, the Republicans flew back to Washington and wimped out.

Their strategy for 1998, articulated early on by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was to stonewall and compromise: Prevent President Clinton from expanding the scope of government, while working with the president to trim some of the modern welfare state's more annoying vines and brambles.

The theory had merit. Conservatives thought they could share some of Mr. Clinton's high job-approval ratings by persuading the president to take a few baby steps in the direction of limited government -- as he did last year, by handing big chunks of welfare back to states.

Unfortunately for the speaker, the world changed. Unions, emboldened by their success in re-electing Mr. Clinton and evading prosecution by his Justice Department watchdogs, decided to make a final stand in 1998. They hurled $20 million into the Golden State to defeat the so-called "Paycheck Protection Act," and they're sure to break the bank buying votes this fall.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton's priorities changed from legacy to acquittal. To keep Big Labor happy, he didn't budge an angstrom to the right. A languorous gridlock followed, and Americans started getting antsy despite the general prosperity.

To cap it off, at precisely the historical moment the federal government turned a surplus, the party of Ronald Reagan couldn't agree on a piddly tax cut.

Tax cuts

Two men at the heart of the House's tax-and-spend battles, Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, managed to wheedle a few cuts out of their colleagues last week. They got rid of the marriage penalty, whittled a bit out of the capital-gains tax and promised more as the economy improves -- but that was it. Out of the $9 trillion or so the federal government plans to spend in the next five years, Congress may manage to scrounge up $80 billion in tax cuts -- less than 1 percent of total federal spending.

Two things account for this surge of fear.

One is the fact that Republicans signed a budget deal last year that makes it impossible to enact big tax cuts without taking chain saws to a bunch of federal agencies.

The second is that the party has become utterly hooked on polls. Even though the Gingrich Brigades marched into town promising revolution and revival, they weren't prepared for the Internet/cable-TV age. Clintonistas outflanked them with rapid responses and deft personal attacks, making Republicans look as dumpy and bemused as Homer Simpson. Lacking any sense of confidence or direction, right-wingers froze in their tracks, awaiting orders from public-opinion mavens.

This ought to have a chilling ring of familiarity. President George Bush also adopted a poll-driven posture of passivity in 1992 and in due course became an ex-president. By waiting instead of acting, he let his challenger define the debate and win the prize. Republicans are now doing the same for Democrats generally.

Sometimes, a party must search for the sound of its own heartbeat, for ideals that provide direction even when pollsters don't. Democrats have been engaging in that enterprise, and seemingly moribund constituencies -- such as labor -- have begun quickening. Republicans, in contrast, are behaving like a querulous mob, greatly in need of adult supervision. With the exception of Jack Kemp, they don't have any Prophets of Plenty. They prefer the Ward Cleaver style: stolid, responsible and dull.

There is another alternative. Recall the examples of two G-men, Goldwater and Gingrich. Goldwater lost in 1964 because he was an ideologue with a burlesque streak. He liked to shock people with the purity and clarity of his vision, and he succeeded. In the end, Americans knew in their hearts that he was a) right and b) not presidential material.

Newt Gingrich, in contrast, became a household word because he titillated people's imaginations without laying siege to their sensibilities. He didn't preach or preen about proper lifestyles or other such bilge. He promoted limited and lighter government.

If conservatives want to govern for two more years, they should use 1994, not 1964, as their template. And there's no better place to start than with a hefty tax cut, one big enough to set working Americans dreaming about what they could do with the money if only Bill Clinton would let them have it back.

Tony Snow is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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