Republicans thinking about an agenda for the future may want to borrow some ideas from an unlikely source—the Democrats of the past.
Bill Clinton's welfare reform and North American Free Trade Agreement. John F. Kennedy's tax cuts. President Carter's deregulation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's World War II resolve. Put them together and update them for the current moment, and they are the beginnings of an effective policy program for Republicans in Congress or seeking the White House in 2016. What's more, talking about them as Democratic ideas could help Republicans capture crossover voters while also reminding them how far today's Democrats have shifted left.
The two most effective Republican politicians of my lifetime, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both realized this. When Reagan accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, the Gipper quoted FDR's 1932 acceptance speech: "For three long years I have been going up and down this country preaching that government—federal, state, and local—costs too much. I shall not stop that preaching. As an immediate program of action, we must abolish useless offices. We must eliminate unnecessary functions of government."
In the final two weeks of George W. Bush's successful re-election campaign in 2004, Bush cited Roosevelt in 24 speeches, and Kennedy in 17. "The party of Franklin Roosevelt, of Harry Truman, of John Kennedy is rightly remembered for confidence and resolve in times of war and hours of crisis," Bush said in Dubuque, Iowa. "Many Democrats in this country do not recognize their party anymore."
As Bush and Reagan appreciated, talking about Democrats favorably—at least those of previous generations—is good politics for Republicans. It provides reassurance and emotional comfort for those voters who aren't in the habit of voting for the GOP. It also serves to distinguish Democratic politicians of the past from those of the present. As Reagan said during a campaign stop in 1984 in Warren, Michigan, "Whenever I talk about Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry Truman or John F. Kennedy, my opponents start tearing their hair out. They just can't stand it. Well of course they can't, because it highlights how far they, the leadership today of the Democratic Party, have strayed from the strength of the Democratic political tradition."
For today's Republicans, though, recovering policy ideas from the Democrats of the past has the potential to be much more than a campaign-season rhetorical ploy. High-quality policy substance is available for the taking in the areas where Democrats of years past deserve genuine credit for policies that brought America growth, security, and opportunity.
President Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement, together with the tariff reductions he won through GATT/WTO negotiations, have been described by his former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers as "the largest tax cut in the history of the world." They've translated into lower prices on imported goods for American consumers. After Clinton, prodded by a Republican Congress, followed through on his 1992 campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it," caseloads declined 60 percent. Child poverty fell. Millions of Americans went off the dole and entered the workforce.
Kennedy's supply-side income-tax cuts were such a success at unleashing robust economic growth that they were models for Reagan's and George W. Bush's. Real, after-inflation economic growth was 5.8 percent in 1964, the year the tax cut went into effect; 6.4 percent in 1965, and 6.5 percent in 1966.
And let's not forget even Jimmy Carter. Carter's not as popular as Kennedy or FDR. His domestic policy accomplishments are more obscure. But Americans who get packages from FedEx, fly on low fares on Southwest or JetBlue, or buy goods delivered by train or truck are reaping the benefits of Carter's successful effort, as he put it in a 1978 speech, to "get the regulatory agencies and government agencies' nose out of the private sector's business and let our free enterprise system work in the United States." Today's Republicans like to say President Obama is another Carter. On foreign policy, there are parallels. But with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and a series of other laws deregulating air cargo, trucking, railroad freight, and even to some extent banking and energy, Carter rolled bureaucracy back, in sharp contrast to Obama.
For all that progress, there is plenty of unfinished work. Carter deregulated transportation, but freeing health care from overbearing government control is a job for some future president. Roosevelt and Truman defeated the Nazis in World War II, but the current war against what some call Islamofascism is yet un-won.
Kennedy, Reagan, and George W. Bush cut taxes, but today, thanks to President Obama and Congress, the top federal long-term capital gains rate stands at 23.8 percent, which is higher than the 19.5 percent that Kennedy proposed back in 1963.
Clinton reformed one welfare program—Aid to Families With Dependent Children, now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But other welfare programs have yet to be reformed. Government spending on food stamps, for example, has more than quadrupled since Clinton's last year in office. And the Social Security disability program has become so bloated and perverse that even The New York Times' liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof discovered, reporting in Appalachia, parents pulling their children out of literacy classes out of fear that if the children learn to read, they'll lose their $698-a-month checks for having an "intellectual disability."
If Republicans don't pick up this banner, maybe some Democrat will arise who appreciates the brighter moments in the history of his or her party. The ideas are there in the past, just waiting for a politician with the imagination, vision, and ability to resurrect them. As John Kennedy himself said while campaigning for Congress in 1946: "We, in this country, need to do battle for old ideas that have proved their value with the same enthusiasm that people do for new ideas."