Winning One for the GOP


Conventional wisdom suggests that the Democrats will recapture the White House in 1988. After all, Ronald Reagan has been badly damaged by the Iran-contra mess. And the Reagan coalition of traditional Republicans, economic libertarians, and the religious right is inherently unstable, held together only by Reagan's personal magnetism.

But conventional wisdom could well be wrong. The Democrats lack a credible candidate. And the GOP has a golden opportunity to become the new majority party—if it can muster the courage and wisdom to adjust its priorities to the new realities of the late 1980s.

The most important reality is that 1988 will be the first presidential election in which the baby boom generation makes up the majority of the electorate. For our generation, the formative political events were the Vietnam war and Watergate—not the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. Vietnam and Watergate shaped a political consciousness that is highly skeptical of government meddling—at home and abroad.

A politics-as-usual political program—dishing out subsidies and protection to every interest group in sight, sending battleships to the Middle East, launching crackdowns on immigrant-entrepreneurs and adult-video buyers—is simply not going to make it with this individualistic, antigovernment generation. On the other hand, a positive program that's in tune with this new majority's skeptical, tolerant values is highly likely to be a winner.

The first requirement is for the GOP to jettison the religious right's social agenda. This should not be done vindictively. With all due respect for the sincere religious convictions of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and their followers, the GOP needs to reaffirm that morals are the province of the home and the church, not the government. No more than this need be said or done. The religious right won't like it, but they are not likely to defect en masse to the liberal Democrats over just this issue.

On defense and foreign policy, the GOP needs to do what Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger have failed to do: set clear priorities about what is essential and what is not. A large majority (and not just baby boomers) is convinced that $300 billion is more than enough to spend on "defense"—and they're ready to vote for people who can separate real defense from international power trips.

One such power trip is paying the bills (and retaining the nuclear trigger finger) for Europe and Japan. Nearly 50 years after World War II, it is long past time to return to normalcy, where major powers are responsible for their own defense. In adopting this posture, the GOP would be returning to its long and honorable tradition of nonintervention.

At the same time, the GOP should make its number-one defense priority the deployment of a system of defenses against nuclear attack. Polls show overwhelming support for a shield against the threat of nuclear destruction. The majority will grow ever larger as more voters come to realize that today we have no defense whatsoever. A fully informed public will demand deployment of an initial defensive system, even as R&D proceeds on the lasers and particle beams for a second generation.

What about the economy? One of Ronald Reagan's strongest appeals to younger voters has been the restoration of economic growth and entrepreneurship. Yet today's well-educated baby boomers know that our low-tax prosperity has been purchased at the expense of future generations, who are stuck with the doubled national debt (now over $2 trillion) created by Reaganomics.

It's important that the gravity of this situation be faced. The recently revised Gramm-Rudman schedule calls for five more years and $472 billion more in deficits before reaching a balanced budget in 1993. This is a pipe dream, because it assumes there will be five more years with no recession. A recession would automatically lead to much larger deficits.

Traditional Republicans will therefore be beating the drums for a major tax increase to balance the budget. But that would be a double disaster. Not only would it probably cost the GOP the election (go ask Walter Mondale!); if it somehow were enacted, such an increase would very likely trigger a deep recession by killing off entrepreneurial activity, increasing rather than ending the deficit.

What's needed—and what the new majority will support—is what Ronald Reagan promised but never accomplished: to reduce the cost and scope of the federal government, making it live within its means like the rest of us. There are three excellent ways to do this:

• Freeze spending. As long as the economy continues to grow, the tax code automatically increases federal revenues by about $50 billion a year—without any increase in tax rates. So if federal spending were simply frozen for two years, two-thirds of the deficit would be wiped out. Because a freeze cuts all programs, it will be widely perceived as fair—but only if there are no exceptions. A presidential candidate with the courage to say no to every demand (including Social Security and the Defense Department) would win many points.

• Destroy all monsters. Savvy voters know it's a crock that farmers get $40 billion in subsidies per year, that Boeing and McDonnell Douglas get export subsidies, and that mayors get billions in grants to subsidize construction of Hyatt Regencies. But Congressman A votes for Congressman B's program so that B will agree to vote for A's. So, one by one, the subsidies all stay on the books. What about a pledge to cut a whole package of subsidies simultaneously—so, for example, what city folks lose in urban grants, they make up in lower food prices? Those savings would really add up to something—between $60 and $80 billion a year.

• Sell federal assets. Everywhere else in the world, overburdened governments are selling off state-owned enterprises in order to pay their debts. The Japanese expect to raise $100 billion selling telephone, railway, airline, and other companies. In Britain Margaret Thatcher raised $40 billion from privatization in her first two terms and has additional tens of billions of sales in the pipeline. The story is being repeated in France, Spain, Chile, Mexico, and dozens of other countries.

Contrary to popular impressions, the U.S. government has numerous salable assets: the Postal Service ($10 billion?), the TVA ($15 billion?), National and Dulles airports ($2 billion?), National Forest commercial timberlands ($25 billion?), plus broadcast frequencies and the minerals under federal lands, just to name a few. Politically impossible? That's what skeptics said about selling British firms. But by giving workers and customers a chance to buy in as shareholders, Thatcher turned privatization into people's capitalism—and helped ensure her reelection. The GOP could do likewise.

A platform stressing social tolerance, strong defense of this country, and living within our means could give the GOP a commanding majority. It would preserve the best of the Reagan legacy—shrinking the role of government—while correcting its worst flaws of moral authoritarianism and militarism.

• Live and let live.
• Defend America, not the world.
• Spending cuts, not tax increases.

That's what our generation is waiting to hear. Will the GOP get the message?