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Friday, May 22, 2009

The Party of Stale Ideas

Bruce Bartlett offers his cure for the Republican Party's problems:

Finding The Next Kemp, by Bruce Bartlett, Forbes: Perhaps the saddest part of attending the funeral for Jack Kemp on May 8 was the realization that he was the last of an era: a politician who really cared about ideas.

At the reception afterward, a few of the old-timers who were with Kemp back in the days when he was creating supply-side economics and bringing the Republican Party back from the brink of extinction got to talking. We all lamented that there just didn't seem to be any politician out there these days that we felt we could get behind.

The reason isn't that there aren't members of Congress who would like to be the next Kemp--one, certainly, is former Kemp staffer Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The real problem is the culture of Washington politics, which has changed dramatically since the late 1970s when Kemp was at the pinnacle of his influence.

Back then, liberalism was dominant in a way that most conservatives these days can't imagine. Conservatives didn't even control the Republican Party and the principal organs of conservative thought were small-circulation magazines like National Review and Human Events. The only wide-circulation publications with a conservative bent were the Wall Street Journal and, believe it or not, Reader's Digest.

In those days there was, of course, no Internet, no talk radio and no cable news networks. The three major nightly news broadcasts were very widely viewed and they tended to echo whatever appeared in The New York Times and Washington Post that day. These publications treated even the silliest liberal ideas with deep seriousness and all conservative views were subject to overwhelming skepticism.

It was hard even to get a conservative book published. There were just two small publishers of conservative books, Regnery and Arlington House, and it was extraordinarily difficult to get a major publishing house to touch one even when it clearly had best-seller potential. Respectable editors would rather leave money lying on the table than risk ridicule from their liberal peers by daring to publish a book with a conservative bent.

Congress was solidly in the hands of Democrats and it was very hard for a Republican to even offer an amendment or get a hearing, let alone have a bill seriously considered. The rules and composition of the Senate made it a little easier for conservatives in that body, but in the House of Representatives, where Kemp served, it was extraordinarily difficult to get traction on any conservative initiative.

In this atmosphere, the only chance a conservative had was to develop some kind of alliance with Democrats or have an initiative that was clearly better to offer. On foreign and defense policy, there were plenty of Democrats with whom Republicans could work--conservative Southerners, of which there were still quite a few in those days, and even a few from the North like Sens. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson of Washington and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. But on economics, getting traction on a conservative initiative was much harder because the Republican and Democrat leadership were pretty united around the idea of expanding the welfare state, or at least doing nothing to actually shrink it.

Anyway, conservatives really had nothing to offer on economic policy. Simply balancing the budget was the only thing they had. But in the inflationary 1970s balancing the budget in the near term wasn't too terribly hard. Because the tax system was not indexed to inflation, every 1% increase in the Consumer Price Index increased federal revenues by about 1.6%. With inflation high and rising, projections of higher federal revenues were also high and rising, making it easy to project budget balance a few years down the road if the growth in government spending just slowed very slightly.

The nature of the Republican Party is that it tends to stick to the same ideas year in and out no matter how unsuccessful they are. The Democrats have the opposite problem--they tend to continually reinvent the wheel even when it is working just fine. But in the 1970s, Republicans faced a crisis that forced them to think outside the box.

The GOP had been decimated in the congressional election of 1974 in the wake of Watergate. Adding insult to injury, liberal Democrats began purging conservative Southerners with whom Republicans often worked from their leadership positions. Then in 1976, Republicans suffered a brutal primary fight between former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford, who had never even been elected to his office. Ford had been appointed vice president after the resignation of Spiro Agnew in an ethics scandal, becoming president after the resignation of Richard Nixon because of Watergate.

Reagan, it should be remembered, was much more of a conventional Republican in those days than he was after becoming president in 1981. His major issue in the 1976 campaign was a cut in federal spending by $90 billion, almost a third of the budget, with the states being given responsibility for many federal programs. But Reagan never explained how such a spending cut could be achieved or how the states would be able to administer all of these programs without a massive tax increase.

What this incident really showed is that Reagan wasn't quite ready for prime time; he was still stuck in the old conservative model of trying to repeal the New Deal and the Great Society when there clearly was no significant support for doing do. But his challenge to Ford made it easier for an obscure governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter to win the White House.

At this point, there was serious talk of the GOP ceasing to exist. It was only because of this that Republicans were at all receptive to Kemp's idea of cutting taxes without trying to cut spending. But, contrary to what many libertarians believe, he wasn't indifferent to the problem of spending. Kemp just thought that if the growth of spending could be restrained to be less than the growth the economy then spending as a share of GDP would fall. He also thought it would be easier to cut spending at a time of prosperity.

Unfortunately, Kemp's idea has now become distilled into the notion that spending doesn't matter at all and that tax cuts are the answer to every problem. So in a way, Republicans are back into the same rut they were in 30 years ago when all they can do is repeat the same old proposals regardless of whether they are appropriate to the circumstances. Back then, balancing the budget was the solution to every problem, today it is tax cuts.

Anyone hoping to emulate Kemp, therefore, needs to start with a genuinely new idea--and more and bigger tax cuts ain't it. That card has been played to the point of diminishing returns, politically. That new idea also has to respond to a genuine problem. But that will require deep thought and analysis, something few members of Congress are capable of these days. They are too busy coming up with sound bites responding to matters of only momentary interest.

One of Kemp's strengths was a willingness to reach out to the smartest people he could find to ask their advice or to hear their ideas and analyses of the problems our nation faced. Too few members of Congress today take advantage of the intellectual resources at their disposal or are willing to take the time to make themselves an expert on some subject before going on television to talk about it.

I would suggest to any politician wanting to be the new Kemp that there are still a few of us who worked with him and would happily lend our time and expertise. But you need to take the initiative by reaching out; we aren't lobbyists who are going to come to you. And be willing to do some reading and research--a one-page memo from your staff with bullet points isn't enough. Deep thinking will be necessary. If a guy like Kemp with a degree in phys ed can get through books like Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom and F.A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, then so can you.

    Posted by on Friday, May 22, 2009 at 09:36 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (47)

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