Whether it’s from “The Emerging Democratic Majority” or “Getting to Purple*,” most statistical projections see the Republican Party taking a backseat in government for the next few years. In a Newsweek column this week, Fareed Zakaria writes:
Conservatism grew powerful in the 1970s and 1980s because it proposed solutions appropriate to the problems of the age—a time when socialism was still a serious economic idea, when marginal tax rates reached 70 percent, and when the government regulated the price of oil and natural gas, interest rates on checking accounts and the number of television channels. The culture seemed under attack by a radical fringe. It was an age of stagflation and crime at home, as well as defeat and retreat abroad. Into this landscape came Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, bearing a set of ideas about how to fix the world. Over the next three decades, most of their policies were tried. Many worked. Others didn’t, but in any event, time passed and the world changed profoundly. Today, as Frum writes, “after three decades of tax cutting, most Americans no longer pay very much income tax.” Inflation has been tamed, the economy does not seem overregulated to most, and crime is not at the forefront of people’s consciousness. The culture has proved robust, and has in fact been enriched and broadened by its diversity. Abroad, the cold war is won and America sits atop an increasingly capitalist world. Whatever our problems, an even bigger military and more unilateralism are not seen as the solution.
Today’s world has a different set of problems. A robust economy has not lifted the median wages of Americans by much. Most workers are insecure about health care, and most corporations are unnerved by its rising costs. Globalization is seen as a threat, bringing fierce competition from dozens of countries. The danger of Islamic militancy remains real and lasting, but few Americans believe they understand the phenomenon or know how best to combat it. They see our addiction to oil and the degradation of the environment as real dangers to a stable and successful future. Most crucially, Americans’ views of the state are shifting. They don’t want bigger government—a poll last year found that a majority (57 percent) still believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life—but they do want a smarter government, one that can help them be safe, secure and well prepared for political and economic challenges. In this context, conservative slogans sound weirdly anachronistic, like watching an old TV show from … well, from the 1970s.
Well, in a way being conservative is anachronistic but I’ll leave the acuteness of this assessment to the reader’s judgment. My wish here is to begin the discussion of creating a new, sellable form of conservatism which isn’t an anachronism to voters. Here are my thoughts on using some conservative principles, not as ends but as a means to accomplish the voters’ wishes:
1) Encourage transparency in government. Shine light on all the workings of government, from the lowest to the highest levels. Make budgets available online for all to see. This will hope not only find waste but to work to eliminate it.
2) Focus on getting rid of waste. The earmarks, pork projects, associate executive resource rights and services coordinators. Government needs to be made much more efficient and a lot of public employees should probably be fired. Using basic business management government can be made to resemble something useful.
3) [Might need to break up the public workers unions to accomplish #2, this might be unpopular, but it can be done as part of a right to work campaign.]
4) For K-12 education focus on having the money follow the kids. Give parents choice when it comes to their children’s education. School vouchers, charter schools, homeschooling, whatever. Competition will make for better education. This isn’t unpopular with several important demographics. Bush is already trying to do this with K-12 Pell Grants. These things again run into unions, this time teachers unions, and standing up to them will be very important in the future.
5) Introduce more data-based decision making. Liberals don’t prioritize well. In the depression grain was burned and pigs were slaughtered in order to keep prices high and help farmers, but this action added to famine problems. By focusing on cost-benefits, opportunity costs and other economic analysis the GOP can prioritize the actions of the government in terms of dollars spent and lives saved.
6) And, based on some data-based recommendations, the GOP should lead a charge to change unemployment benefits and services. The focus should be on training and helping people find jobs, not on passing out checks. Getting people employed, while doubtful a proper role of government, is a more efficient than the present unemployment system.
7) Offer choice in social security. Allow people to either continue with the present system or to have partial to full privatization of their accounts. Offer tax-free retirement accounts on top of that and do the same with tax free education and healthcare accounts. Give incentives to save and make the right personal financial choices.
8) Promote new energy, not with subsidization but with incentives. Hybrids and electric cars should earn tax breaks, the same goes for solar panels and wind generators. We also need Republicans to encourage updating and expanding our nuclear energy capabilities.
9) A republic, not an empire. The Republican Party again needs to remind the voters we’re not imperialists, we only intervene in the affairs of other nations when our security is in danger. (As someone who supports intervention in Darfur as well as someone who would have supported intervention in Rwanda, this one smarts a bit. The voters are just tired of international involvement.)
10) Encourage property ownership and business creation. The Democrats like to say they’re for the little guys but whenever the option pops up of taxing the proletariat they are always first on board. In Minnesota we see this even now, presently the Democrats are planning to override a gubernatorial veto in order to raise gas taxes and car licensure fees. Democrats don’t differentiate between regressive or progressive taxation, when their cloak is removed it’s clear for all to see they simply support taxation.
11) Republicans need to become the party of the little guy. Lowering the bar for small business by decreasing red tape and giving tax breaks is a must. Pointing out the Democrats love of proletariat (or, I guess the term for it now is “middle and lower classes”) taxation and working against it. All these tax breaks need to be offset with other revenue sources, I’m a fan of taxing wealth or the consumption tax (this tax is a bit regressive but the form of it Mike Huckabee supports includes monthly checks for people under a certain income level to offset the increased costs of necessities. (#10 & #11 I haven’t thought out completely so there’s room for criticism and improvement; helping the little guy is the point, eliminating the IRS a bonus)
12) Free trade, as a source of cheap consumer goods, should be seen as a positive. It’s not. I don’t know how exactly to swing it but Free Trade is something that should be defended. Add to this Life, Gun Rights and other issues which are unpopular but we can’t afford to abandon. Protecting these issues will take meditations on how to frame them properly.
13) Common sense in infrastructure. The left loves spending, but they often spend unwisely. Infrastructure does have a positive effect on the economy (whether the effect is worth the costs I leave to professional economists) but democrats rarely spend money properly in this category. They love light rail, bike paths, busses and other silliness takes focus away from infrastructure the bulk of the population needs. Roads and bridges being obvious, spending money where it counts most and being utilitarian about it should be a focus.
14) Conservationism, not preservationism. The two differing philosophies towards the environment and natural resources are used interchangeably but they shouldn’t. Preservationists wish to rope off nature. Conservationists understand this will cause more problems than we realize and is an affront to our civilization. Winning the political war over the environment might mean checking the cynical conservative in all of us (you know, the one that set a tire fire to celebrate Earth Day).
15) Healthcare. It’s difficult to gauge this issue properly. When adjusted appropriately, the mortality rates and life expectancy numbers show America to have a good healthcare system. We spend a lot on it too, and it’s expensive. Some say healthcare is a free market failure. The whole issue is very messed up and it takes some depth and nuance to grok it completely. What needs to be understood and communicated to voters is nationalized or socialized healthcare simply leads to healthcare rationing. In fact, I fear attempts at interfering with healthcare. It’s possible the Romney plan, which forced people into either private coverage or public coverage might be the way to go. Anything to avoid nationalization.
16) Immigration. I think conservatives need to soften their stances on immigration. Securing the border is something people support and should be done. A guest worker plan seems rational to me. Deporting 12 million people doesn’t. Illegal immigrants already here should be forced to get on record (papers, red tape, green cards, etc) pay penalties, learn English and pay taxes. Deporting I don’t think will work but acclimation will. I don’t support citizenship rights for any illegal immigrant but I do think forgiveness of border crossing indiscretions and the attainment of legal status is something that will work for conservatives and everyone else. (Violent criminals, smugglers, knaves and rogues should be shipped out or jailed of course.)
17) Local governance when possible. The federal government is a bit out of control. I for one am sick of the constant battle over wealth redistribution amongst the states. Every state is trying to get as much of the federal pie as it can for itself. It’s disgusting. Let the states live within their means. Again, efficiency in government.
These are some stream of consciousness thoughts. The basic premise is there though, updating conservatism by framing important issues in a way which leads to some voter sympathy for the GOP in 2008 and beyond, something akin to the Contract with America.
*To be reviewed in this space coming soon with obligatory author interview