Republicans on the Rocks II
Jude Wanniski
April 29, 1996


Just when you think the Republican Party will realize that it has dug itself into a hole and must stop digging, it decides to dig faster. Buried on Page A24 of The Wall Street Journal this morning is a quote from Rep. John Boehner [R-OH], chairman of the House Republican Conference, which is now the talk of Washington. Boehner told a securities conference at a West Virginia spa this weekend that the party’s leader, Bob Dole, doesn’t want a seven-year balanced budget agreement with the President. “We’ve got to move Dole,” said Boehner. “He still thinks it would be better for him in October not to have a deal.” Boehner tried to keep his comment off the record, said the Journal, but relented when reporters complained: “He also said there is still time to get a balanced-budget agreement, and that he ‘thinks Bill Clinton wants to do it.’” 

For Dole, now trailing Bill Clinton in the polls by 20 points, the last thing he needed was a fellow party leader to tell the world that Dole is putting his career ahead of the national interest. The weekend political talk shows were dominated by observations that Dole seems to be in a political free fall and that the Republicans are scared to death that his fate, and the party’s, will be doomed if President Clinton now can get credit for a seven-year balanced budget. Sunday’s New York Times front page did not do any favors for Republicans with this headline: “G.O.P. Is Preparing Budget Plan With Political Traps for Clinton.” We are left with the sense that Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich are huddled in some back room on Capitol Hill, trying to figure out a way to make the President look bad instead of using their majority status to govern. There is near panic in Republican ranks that is being fed by open declarations of defeatism among the party’s intellectual cadre. “Beltway Bill” Kristol, editor of the Beltway Standard, and his close friend Bill Bennett, have been leading the pack in warning of a mammoth Dole defeat on November 5. They recommend that GOP candidates for Congress and state and local governments distance themselves from Dole, although they have no idea in which direction the fleeing should occur. The clever strategy is “Every man for himself.” 

What do they do about Bill Clinton bearing down on the GOP’s growth agenda, such as it is? In his syndicated column this morning, Robert Novak reports that the President is on the verge of openly offering a serious cut in the capital gains tax as part of the budget deal. “Clinton’s cutting capital gains rates may not seem to carry the historic bravura of Richard Nixon’s going to China, but it has the same potential. It would declare independence from the numbing zero-sum politics that have dominated the Democratic Party for a generation and would preempt the issue of economic growth, insensibly abandoned by Republicans as they returned to their congenital obsession with deficit reduction.” I suspect Clinton already has decided to make this move, foreshadowed by Felix Rohatyn’s April 11 op-ed essay in the Journal. Even Vice President Al Gore, a zero-sum liberal, is privately telling the business community that while he still doesn’t think a capgains cut will do that much good, he’s ready to do it. So is Dick Morris at Clinton campaign HQ, and so also I suspect is Jim Carville, who long has anticipated pulling the capgains trigger on the GOP at the right time. The perfect time for Clinton to do this will be at a May 7 fund-raiser in New Jersey, a battleground state for Clinton and Dole, where Rep. Bob Torricelli, a liberal “Growth Democrat,” has broken new ground by advocating a capgains cut in his race for the Senate seat of Bill Bradley, an opponent of a capgains tax differential. 

This doesn’t mean we are going to see a capgains cut this year, folks. It just means that Republican plans to make Clinton look bad are continuing to blow up in their faces. The White House is putting out the word that there could be a budget deal in the next two weeks. For this to happen, though, Dole and Gingrich essentially have to throw in the towel on their grander scheme of squeezing down the entitlement programs for health care and welfare. Who needs Bob Dole in the White House if Bill Clinton can balance the budget and cut capital gains taxes? Who needs Newt Gingrich and a Republican Congress? With “Growth Democrats” able to solve the nation’s fiscal problems painlessly, who needs Herbert Hoover cutting the school lunch program and throwing widows and orphans off Medicaid? Every time the Congressional Budget Office revises the deficit estimates, it declines further, seemingly taking care of itself. Yes, the entitlement deficit still explodes after 2010, when the baby boomers retire, but President Clinton is under no political pressure to solve that problem this week or next. 

The central GOP problem remains that since Ronald Reagan left the White House, the party has reverted steadily not only to its traditional obsession with austerity, but also toward a newfound fascination with cultural determinism. The one complements the other. Conservative social engineering replaces liberal social engineering at the GOP’s high command, and in the editorial offices of the Beltway Standard. [Austerity is character building. The Constitution should require balanced budgets, school prayer, no abortion, term limits, and super majority on tax increases. The tax codes should be used to promote conservative social values -- a $500 credit for every kid, etc. A voucher system for school privatization.] Jack Kemp, Reagan’s heir apparent as leader of the GOP’s growth wing, has practically been read out of the party for being soft on deficits, constitutional amendments, and multiculturalism. Since Kemp retired from active politics, there has been no growth anchor within the GOP. Steve Forbes game and expensive effort to fill that void came up short. There is no other comparable leader in sight, which gives the Clinton Democrats the opportunity they now have to fill that void.

The best the hapless Republican leadership can manage is the appointment of Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee, as party spokesman. He is the “fresh face.” In his first appearances in this role, he has come across as a kind of Happy Herbert Hoover, cheerfully announcing the good news of budget savings. The poor fellow seemed downright silly in asking the voters to believe the $23 billion in budget cuts in this Congress constituted the greatest domestic achievement since World War II. He says the same stuff as Bob Dole and Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenci, but while they grump, he chirps. On the "Evans&Novak" weekend show, we found Kasich brimming over with enthusiasm at the prospect of a Dole presidency, which would allow the Republican Congress to burn down the New Deal. House Speaker Newt Gingrich obviously believes that his approach is exactly what the public wants, but that he lacks the “P.R.” to make the voters appreciate what he has done for them. Kasich, who really has the potential of filling the Reagan/Kemp void at some point, has been dragooned into playing the Happy Hoover. 

Can I imagine a scenario in which Dole and the GOP make a comeback? Of course. Anything is possible in presidential politics, especially with five months to go before the vote. I can imagine many scenarios that can play out in this time frame, some of which we soon will be exploring with you.