Selected Skirmishes: Goppycock

The emerging GOP death wish


I took some heat during the 1992 election campaign for saying, and I quote, "If you desire to help your Republican friends, hold your nose double-tight and vote Clinton-Gore in '92." Fortunately, Republican heat was only about room temperature in those days. Now, with The Economist and other learned outlets calling 1994 the first legit shot for a Republican Senate since 1986, I humbly rest my case.

But I am not here to crow, cackle, or guffaw. (Much.) While the pundits were trumpeting the demise of the Republican Party, the Clintonites were pulling all-nighters to put its pieces back together again. In response to the stunning GOP victories of recent months, the president insists on calling newly elected Republican senators, governors, and mayors simply a sign of the "change" vote which elected Mr. Clinton in the first place. By this logic, a vote against Mr. Clinton in 1996 will be a vote for the policies of change which Mr. Clinton stood for in 1992. Finally, a clear Clinton mandate!

That the administration megadoses daily on both government and governmental incompetence (complementary outputs, as economists say) should make the task of the opposition party both fun and profitable. This allows the nominally anti-government party yet another chance to get its act together. Theoretically.

The Republicans have been on the precipice of real power before. Following the collapse of the Great Society, party strategist Kevin Phillips was hawking "The Emerging Republican Majority." By 1974, the Democrats–enjoying an unlikely windfall from Watergate (who'da guessed that the party of Lyndon Johnson would regain power on voter reaction against the abuse of power?)–were propelled to commanding congressional (and, two years later, presidential) victories by the howling winds of Republican scandal. The same gale drove Ronald Reagan's two-term tenure to an ending disappointment with Iran-contra. Finally, the ultimate botch: George Bush.

Today we may observe The Emerging Republican Death Wish. The party's suicidal tendencies are on neon display in Virginia, a state which hopes to host a new Disney theme park and is gearing up politically with a gaggle of Goofys. Oliver North, the duly nominated GOP candidate, personifies the problem of runaway government. He lied to Congress, illegally diverted U.S. funds, and made mincemeat out of statutory law by engaging in rogue foreign-policy gambits. Yet Republican conservatives adore Ollie because he brags about defying Congress and taking the law into his own hands. He was on a mission from God.

What a perfect mirror to the left! No petty bureaucrat ever screwed some innocent taxpayer out of his/her rights without some high-falutin morality play to trumpet, and no Democratic politician ever bloated the federal Tyrannosaurus on the premise of personal greed. I warn you so-called conservatives. Do not get into an "ends justifies the means" contest with these people. They are the Superbowl champions of mega-justifications for huge state action.

Today the GOP platform could be most aptly described as Reaganesque–Nancy Reaganesque. "Just say no to Bill Clinton," and you've covered 90 percent of the GOP's intellectual turf. It was, in fact, one of the GOP's relative geniuses–Bill Kristol–who instructed the party bigwigs to fight Bill and Hillary by denying a health-care crisis exists. OK, crisis may be a bit strong–but the reason people in politics exaggerate like this is that tough talk conveys that you care. You ought to care–about the myriad regulations and taxes and restrictions on competition that drive medical costs up. Not a crisis? If you don't want to play the game, why'd you bother to dress up so funny at your convention?

For all of Bill Clinton's foibles, fabrications, and failings, you have got to hand him this: He's dominating the debate. Simply put, Bill Clinton is the man with the plan. That sets the agenda. I have actually heard conservative leaders say that they "oppose health care"–inadvertently but revealingly ceding Bill Clinton the authority not just to define a policy but to homestead an entire sector of the U.S. economy. (Unless they really do oppose health care, in which case I was confusing the views of Christian Science with those of the Republican right.)

The Republicans cannot set the agenda in the manner in which the Democratic president has. After all, Clinton didn't have the agenda set (at least this agenda) prior to occupying the White House. By the same token, the Republicans never did get around to this crucial task through 12 years of Reagan-Bush. The world still awaits the Republican Agenda–a broad set of limited-government solutions to the problems of health care, welfare, and slow economic growth. Waiting for a rational and persuasive party platform to magically materialize from a cabal of anti-abortion fanatics in 1996 would constitute an exceedingly generous contribution to Mr. Clinton's re-election campaign. Quantified, the amount easily exceeds $1,000. That is a clear violation of federal law–for no higher purpose whatever.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.