The Obsolete Republican Agenda
Jude Wanniski
July 27, 1994


In 1993, as Republicans contemplated the future of the party following the loss of the White House for the first time in 12 years, they had an adequate explanation of why President George Bush failed: He broke his read-my-lips tax pledge, bigtime. They could not explain, however, why victory continued to elude so many Republican candidates for the House and Senate. The most popular explanation among GOP pols was that in the past 40 years the Democrats had rigged the rules to favor incumbents. The notion hardened into GOP support of term limits -- now one of several obsolete ideas that clutter up the GOP catechism and burden the party's opportunities this November. The litany also includes a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, a presidential line-item veto, and an angry approach on crime. They are a burden, I think, not because they are unpopular, but because they are not issues that win elections.

They are responsible country-club issues, the kind that fascinate Republican elites. Candidates who rely on them do not reach the concerns of the broad electorate, and therefore lose. The reason the ideas show up everywhere is that when pollsters ask ordinary Americans questions of public policy that have been in the catechism of responsibility for a long time, as these have been, the answers affirm a popularity that does not really exist. Americans will answer questions of strangers on street corners, on telephones, in supermarkets, in home interviews. It is almost thought a civic duty to answer pollsters. The questions, though, are not those that ordinary Americans ask themselves when they enter the voting booths. Republican pollsters and their fellow professional political operatives charge large amounts of money in advising candidates to cite these irrelevancies, in the hopes of winning elections.

Term limits, line-item vetoes and budget balancing amendments are hollow ideas that are implicitly anti-democratic. They each rest on the assumption that the political marketplace is inefficient, that the electorate in aggregate can be fooled into voting for Democratic politicians who rig the rules, and that more Republicans will be elected if they can only persuade the voters to rig the rules differently. Each of these proposed rule changes flows from a concern that the Democratic Congress spends too much money, and that the changes would cause less money to be spent. If Herbert Hoover were alive and well, he would be attracted to these panaceas for that reason, and he would also find, if they were enacted, that more, not less money would be spent. Changing the rules in a democratic process can only produce greater efficiencies when individual options increase. The one rules change I have long advocated is a constitutional amendment to permit a national initiative and referendum process, which vastly increases the power of individuals, reducing the influence of the elites.

Term limits reduce the options available to voters by restricting access to the political talent pool and experience would be devalued in the process. The "flash in the pan" would be rewarded, the late bloomer would not bloom at all. In his 32 years in Congress, for example, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole has not had two better years than the last two, which could not have taken place under any system of term limits. The constitutional limitation on presidential terms was pushed through Congress and state legislatures at the instigation of the Republicans, who feared the FDR precedent of four terms would carry into a succession of Democratic reigns. It has so far affected only Ronald Reagan, who could not seek a third term in 1988 because of the prohibition.

Black Americans are especially hostile to the term limits idea, seeing the midstream rules change as a way to block their advance in the House of Representatives, the only branch of the government where they have a power grip. At present, black congressional districts will send members to Congress again and again until their seniority gives them power positions. With term limits, white majorities would always be in a position to keep black Representatives on the back bench. The congressional Black Caucus would sooner have the GOP win control of the House this fall or in 1996 than have term limits. Their senior members would still be in powerful ranking positions, with a chance to win chairmanships in subsequent elections should the Democrats return to power. Term limits would persuade black nationalists that there was in fact a white conspiracy at work. There's no need for any of this. Indeed, Republicans for the first time in memory are now able to fantasize about control of Congress, but term limitations would then deny GOP incumbents of the power of seniority.

The executive line-item veto is another rules change designed to restore "fiscal integrity." It is intended to allow the President to veto selected pieces of spending bills, to economize. Instead it would enable the President to punish wayward members of Congress by slicing out pork they had been able to negotiate for their districts and reward toadies by leaving their pork in place. With a line-item veto, President Clinton, for example, could far more easily get Hillary's socialized health care bill through Congress, threatening retribution via this massive increase in executive power. Again, the Congressional Black Caucus is fanatically opposed to a line-item veto, which shifts power away from the legislative branch where at least they have a power grip, to the executive branch, which is lily white. There is no reason to believe a line-item veto would save one dollar over time. It will still take coalitions to vote out appropriation bills, a process that now takes place by traditional logrolling measures worked out in the give and take of the legislative process. With this power transferred to the executive branch, the bureaucrats of each Cabinet department and agency would be the only people with the time to provide this legislative glue. Their incentives would be to  increase, not decrease, the size of their bailiwicks, and they would be in a position to dominate the President via paperwork when he is poised to wield his line-item veto pen. At the end of the day, at least as much money would be spent, but at the edges it would go to different places for different projects. The voters would adjust their voting patterns in order to adjust the spending patterns in subsequent spending cycles.

A constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget is on the checklist of practically every Republican candidate for the House and Senate, and a growing number of Democrats too. Inasmuch as the Congress is merely a committee of the whole house, the electorate at large, such an amendment would constitute instructions from the people to its committee to balance the budget. Why, then, do the people not send committees to Washington who promise to balance the budget? It is because if the people do want the budget balanced, they only want it to be balanced in a certain way, and it is up to Congress to figure out that certain way, which cannot be done by constitutional edict. It is a total waste of time for a candidate to back a constitutional amendment because the voters only wish to know how the candidate proposes to do that balancing. The worst answer is by across-the-board "spending cuts." The best answer is by "economic growth," via specific steps that the voters know indeed causes economic growth that will automatically reduce spending and increase revenues.

The "hottest" issue this year, according to the pros, is CRIME. All the polls say so. Pledges to build more prisons, throw the key away on three-time losers, and capital punishment all get marvelous responses when voters are asked about them on street corners. In the quiet of voting booths, though, voters tend to reject eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth candidates. Candidates can sell punishment as a campaign issue only in the context of individual responsibility. That is, murderers should not be put to death because society seeks revenge, but because they committed crimes for which the punishment is death. The difference may seem subtle, but it is not. Voters elect representatives who are representative of their own values. Most people will accept the idea that society requires its members to take full responsibility for the capital crimes they commit, and not make the excuse that "society made me do it." Most black voters can support white candidates who favor capital punishment on these grounds, but will reject those who seem too eager to punish. Insofar as the "Christian Right" reflects the charity of the New Testament, which I think it does, it is a powerful and positive force for the GOP. When it represents the God of Wrath, it cuts the other way. The abortion issue works for Republicans only when it is linked to individual responsibility: Society should not pay for abortions through government taxation; society should not sanction abortions for teenage girls who have not informed their parents.

Republicans are already counting their chickens in November, and for the most part their prospects look good in comparison with the problems of President Clinton and the Democratic agenda. But for the GOP to be sure those chickens hatch, it has to do some serious work on its own agenda.