Republican lack of fiscal discipline led to loss of Congress

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End of the Revolution
Advice to Republicans: Don’t go back and check on a dead skunk.

BY DICK ARMEY
November 9, 2006
Opinion Journal

If there was still any doubt, the Republican Revolution of 1994 officially ended Tuesday night with the loss of at least 28 seats and majority control of the House of Representatives. As I write this, the race in Virginia that will determine if the Republicans also lose control of the Senate is too close to call, but leaning Democrat.

It was a rout.

How did we get here? The war in Iraq and historical voting patterns that favor the opposition party in off-year elections are factors suggested by many post-election pundits. Certainly, the mounting problems in Iraq were on voters’ minds, but responsibility for the conduct of the war lies with the executive branch, and President Bush was not on the ballot.

That said, this was a national election, driven by national issues. One big issue in exit polls suggests widespread voter backlash against the “culture of corruption.” There is something to this, I think. Over time, too many Republicans in the governing majority forgot or abandoned their national vision, letting parochial interests dominate the decision-making process.

All enterprises have a life-cycle. The Republican takeover in 1994 was the culmination of years of agitation by a relatively small group of political entrepreneurs in the House. Before we could beat the Democrats and their “culture of corruption,” we had to beat the old bulls of our own party. They too were driven by a parochial vision, and had grown complacent with the crumbs offered them by the majority. It is often said that Newt Gingrich and I “nationalized” the election in 1994, but what the Contract with America really did was establish a national (as opposed to a parochial) vision for the Republican Party. When we took control, that positive Reagan vision of limited government and individual responsibility provided a great deal of discipline and allowed us to govern accordingly. Our primary question in those early years was: How do we reform government and return money and power back to the American people?

Eventually, the policy innovators and the “Spirit of ’94” were largely replaced by political bureaucrats driven by a narrow vision. Their question became: How do we hold onto political power? The aberrant behavior and scandals that ended up defining the Republican majority in 2006 were a direct consequence of this shift in choice criteria from policy to political power.

Nowhere was this turn more evident than in the complete collapse of fiscal discipline in the budgeting process. For most Republican candidates, fiscal responsibility is our political bread and butter. No matter how voters view other, more divisive issues from abortion to stem-cell research, Republicans have traditionally enjoyed a clear advantage with a majority of Americans on basic pocketbook issues. “We will spend your money carefully and we will keep your taxes low.” That was our commitment. This year, no incumbent Republican (even those who fought for restraint) could credibly make that claim. The national vision–less government and lower taxes–was replaced with what Jack Abramoff infamously called his “favor factory.” One Republican leader actually defended a questionable appropriation of taxpayer dollars, saying it was a reasonable price to pay for holding a Republican seat. What was most remarkable was not even the admission itself, but that it was acknowledged so openly. Wasn’t that the attitude we were fighting against in 1994?

I’ve always wondered why Republicans insist on acting like Democrats in hopes of retaining political power, while Democrats act like us in order to win.

I’ve also wondered why Republicans let their fears and insecurities get in the way of important reforms. They missed the opportunity of a lifetime by failing to embrace retirement security based on personal ownership. Instead, from both parties we heard about “saving Social Security”–to the extent we heard anything at all. Republicans should be for reforms that free individuals and their families from failed government programs. We should not be for “saving” failed government programs. When we took on welfare reform in 1995, we knew we were taking on a Goliath. Once we threw the first rock, we knew we had to finish the job. Otherwise, the worst claims of our opponents would have stuck with us in future elections. With legislative success, the horrible accusations of our opponents were replaced with reduced welfare roles, and the individual dignity and self-sufficiency that naturally followed.

In 2006, instead of heavy lifting on substantial reforms, House and Senate leaders attempted to rally their political base on wedge issues like illegal immigration and gay marriage. Instead of dealing with spending bills or retirement security, the Senate dedicated two full legislative days to a constitutional ban on gay marriage that no one expected to pass. No substantive legislation was passed dealing seriously with border security and legitimate guest workers (funding for a 700 mile fence was finally authorized, but no funds were appropriated). In both instances, it was pure politics, designed to appeal to angry factions of the GOP base. While Republicans managed to hold conservative Christians, they alienated independents, who represent 26% of the voting population. For the first time in 10 years, independents sided with Democrats by a wide margin. Candidates that bet on the high demagogy coefficient associated with illegal immigration, notably in Arizona, lost.

You can’t build a winning constituency based on anger. The American people expect more. That is a lesson Democrats will soon learn if they wrongly interpret the election results as a mandate to “get even.”

Moving forward, my advice to Republicans is simple: Don’t go back and check on a dead skunk. The question Republicans now need to answer is: How do we once again convince the public that we are in fact the party many Democrats successfully pretended to be in this election? To do so, Republicans will need to shed their dominant insecurities that the public just won’t understand a positive, national vision that is defined by economic opportunity, limited government and individual responsibility.

We need to remember Ronald Reagan’s legacy and again stand for positive, big ideas that get power and money out of politics and government bureaucracy and back into the hands of individuals. We also need again to demonstrate an ability to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money. If Republicans do these things, they will also restore the public’s faith in our standards of personal conduct. Personal responsibility in public life follows naturally if your goal is good public policy.

Besides the obvious impact on the House and Senate, Tuesday’s elections will no doubt redefine the Republican field going into early presidential primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It will be up to grassroots activists in those battlegrounds to establish a constituency of expectations that anyone aspiring to be the next president of the United States must satisfy. To voters I say: Demand substance and you will get it. To Republican candidates for office I say: Offer good policy and you will create a winning constituency for lower taxes, less government and more freedom.

Mr. Armey, House majority leader between 1995 and 2002, is chairman of FreedomWorks, a national grassroots advocacy organization.

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