WASHINGTON -- American political arguments often are retrospective but elections usually are prospective. For Republicans to revive in time to win in 2000, they must understand how much has changed since 1995.
Political arguments often have a retrospective cast because America had luminous Founders, who authored documents still deemed authoritative, as impeachment arguments by both sides demonstrated. Elections usually are prospective because Americans, not being frivolous with the franchise, use them to deliver instructions rather than rebukes.
Two Novembers from now few Americans will be seething, one way or another, about impeachment. Republicans interested in recapturing the elan they acquired in the late 1970s and still had as recently as 1995 should begin by recognizing the depletion of their old stock of things to be against.
By 1995, when they captured Congress, the Cold War had ended, but they still had deficits and "big government" to deplore. However, in the 1980s they deplored deficits in principle while profiting from them in practice: The public rather liked paying just 80 cents for every $1 of government it received.
Deficits did then what surpluses are now doing -- making big government painless. Now deficits have disappeared, and in just 23 months President Clinton will vanish. What, then, of the three things Republicans famously favor -- shrinking government, cutting taxes and "doing something" about "values"?
Since 1995 the great spreading tree of government has proved impervious to the Republicans' perfunctory attempts to prune even its puniest twigs. Republicans' shears were no match for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the arts and humanities endowments, and so forth. And the Republicans' 1995 talk of abolishing whole Cabinet departments (particularly Education and Energy) now seems as antique as a 19th-century banner demanding free coinage of silver.
Besides, Republicans and Mr. Clinton are in complete accord that the first order of business is to "save" the biggest components of big government -- the core of the welfare state, Social Security and Medicare. Which would be bigger, the government if Mr. Clinton got all his little additions, or the government if Republicans got the substantial defense increases they rightly favor, including ballistic missile defenses? Given a responsible Republican defense program, and the complete Republican acceptance of the broad contours of the welfare state -- entitlements to pensions and medical care -- it is arguable that the Republican Party is the bigger-government party.
Furthermore, nothing, not even the feeling of national impotence during the Iranian hostages episode, did as much as inflation did to radicalize the middle class and make it receptive to Ronald Reagan. Twenty years ago, inflation was "public enemy No.1" because it was considered the systemic disease of democracy -- something democracy, because of its very nature, could not help but cause, and could not combat.
In 1979, conservatives worried that democracies generally combine profligacy about spending and reluctance about revenue-raising, thereby producing inflation (too much money chasing too few goods). And democracies, being incapable of self-inflicted pain, could not combat inflation.
Boggles the mind
In 1999, the economy is producing a combination of numbers that, 20 years ago, seemed not just highly improbable but theoretically impossible. Economists who then differed about many things agreed about one thing: unemployment this low (4.3 percent, below what used to be considered full employment) combined with growth this rapid (almost 4 percent last year) must be incompatible with inflation this low (1.6 percent last year).
For whatever reasons (information technologies, globalization, Alan Greenspan's brain, sun spots), there is a whirl of wealth creation, and it is producing a giddy sense of emancipation from hitherto restricting rules. Conservatism, a doctrine of sobriety, is accordingly disarmed.
Perhaps euphoria will make people receptive to the Republican proposal for a 10-percent, across-the-board tax cut. But when Bob Dole made a 15-percent cut the centerpiece of his campaign, he elicited a continent-wide yawn.
Republicans tirelessly remind Americans that the federal tax take, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, is at a peacetime high. However, the fact that people need reminding suggests that the reminding is not a potent political appeal.
When people are rapidly becoming wealthier under constant tax rates, taxes lose much of their sting -- especially now that low inflation and fewer brackets minimize the unlegislated tax increase of "bracket creep."
Finally, "values." Many Republicans, cross about public support for Mr. Clinton, seem to think American values need protection from . . . Americans. As an electoral appeal, that needs work.
Granted, Mr. Clinton's silken charm makes one long for honest rancor. But Republicans who think people support him only because they have been irrationally charmed resemble Democrats who ascribed Mr. Reagan's popularity to his smile. A party in denial is in danger.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 2/18/99