Economics

Is the GOP an Echo or a Choice?

Republicans won't let principle stop them from losing.

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Establishment Democrats don't come much more established than Dianne Feinstein. The senior senator from California has been in public life since the early 1960s. As a former president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and former mayor, DiFi is as iconic of the City by the Bay as a cable car full of Rice-a-Roni. 

In the Senate, Feinstein embodies the lethal center, ever ready to vote for bipartisan boondoggles and back fellow big-government hornswogglers. You can find the patented Feinstein Yea on virtually every major expansion of government power in the last 10 years, including the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, Sarbanes-Oxley, the USA PATRIOT Act (and its subsequent reauthorizations), the 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (which created the notorious Troubled Asset Relief Program), the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare), and Dodd-Frank. 

Feinstein's high-and-inside status would seem to be a liability in an age of growing anti-establishment sentiment. While the remnants of Occupy Wall Street complain about the perfidy of the 1 percent, the senator is said to be worth somewhere between $50 million and $100 million; her 2005 fiscal disclosure statement was, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, "nearly the size of a phone book." Legistorm.com puts Feinstein's staff at more than 80 people with a payroll of more than $4 million a year—much larger and more expensive than most Senate staffs. In appearances, Feinstein tends to be surrounded by underlings like "a Gilbert and Sullivan monarch," as a Los Angeles Times colleague once described it to me.

Feinstein is increasingly out of step with the electorate. "I voted in support of this bill because I believe it remains our best chance at reforming our broken health care system," Feinstein said of her ObamaCare vote in 2009. That's a lot to walk back now that a solid majority of Americans want to repeal ObamaCare and more than 70 percent (according to a March ABC/Washington Post poll) believe the law's individual mandate is unconstitutional. 

You'd think Republicans would be champing at this particular bit, fielding highly compelling candidates in an effort to recapture one of the Senate's crown jewels. They are not, and their inaction illustrates why the opposition party is apt to squander its chance to capitalize on the unqualified disaster of President Barack Obama's first term in office. 

There are plenty of Republicans vying to run against Feinstein in November. Some of them are credible, amusing, or both. Among the candidates with some support from the party establishment, Los Angeles businessman Al Ramirez and San Diego hospital services entrepreneur Dan Hughes are both running on platforms of vigorous if selective deregulation and tax cutting.

The outsider candidates are even better. Surfing rabbi Nachum Shifren is rabidly anti-immigrant and exercised about the threat of Shariah law, but he espouses Tea Party–informed fiscal conservatism and has Herman Cain–like populist appeal. (And did I mention that he's a surfing rabbi?) Rick Williams, a blustery L.A. lawyer, self-described "Ron Paul guy," and devotee of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, challenges Feinstein on her militarism and her rotten civil liberties record. And say what you will about eccentric pundit Orly Taitz; if she wins, the world's greatest deliberative body will finally take on the all-important question of Kenyan birth certificates. 

But while I'd be happy to see Rick Williams take the brass ring, the GOP Senate candidate after the June primary is certainly going to be Elizabeth Emken, a Danville-based advocate for autism issues who has put together a slick campaign and won over party leadership. Emken is an affable politico, but the content of her campaign shows what's wrong with GOP ideology, or lack of it, both in California and nationwide. 

During the California GOP convention, I had a chance to ask Emken about DiFi's voting record, and how Emken's would have differed. She couldn't name a single big-government misstep of the Bush era—not TARP, not the PATRIOT Act, not any of the various war authorizations—where she would have voted differently from Feinstein. When I asked her to name her favorite economist, she cited Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. When I asked why libertarians should vote for her, she said she was committed to more efficient government but declined to give specifics. 

Emken did have one nice divergence from the Republican mainstream. She said every item in the federal budget, even defense spending, should be "on the table" for cuts. That puts her ahead of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), whose ballyhooed austerity plan would actually restore $55 billion in defense spending slated to be cut under the "trigger" mandated by last year's debt ceiling deal. 

And that's the real problem. The California Republican Party, you may have heard, is close to extinction, barely holding on to a fraction of the electorate and a mere third of the state legislature. If a Golden State RINO who is hardly distinguishable from the sitting Democrat shows more fiscal responsibility than the party's leading budget hawk, something is seriously wrong. 

As this column was being written, Mitt Romney, who pioneered ObamaCare's individual mandate when he was governor of Massachusetts, was close to locking down the Republican presidential nomination. Despite the wealth of targets created by Obama's desolating presidency, the Republicans had managed to seize on nothing but dud issues: immigration (at a time when immigration is in sharp decline), pornography, and the strange claim that the president who ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden, claims the authority to kill U.S. citizens, and agitates for war with Iran is insufficiently martial. A Quinnipiac poll taken in March showed Obama leading Romney by 50 percent to 42 percent. 

Why would a president who gave America vast unemployment, soaring inflation, a moribund economy, record deficits, and a manically ill-conceived energy policy be coasting toward re-election? For the same reason Dianne Feinstein (who, like Romney, generates little excitement in her base but is considered electable) is a lock. Republicans have spent so long in ideological hibernation that the only challengers they can field are clones of the Democratic incumbents. And who would choose a clone when you can buy the original?

Tim Cavanaugh is managing editor of reason online.