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Could Have, Would Have, Should Have

How Republicans could have avoided the trouble they're in.

11:00 PM, Nov 6, 2006 • By FRED BARNES
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Tax reform could have had a similar effect. It may be hard to achieve, but it's both important and favored by the vast majority of Americans. Here again, however, Republicans were anything but bold. A tax panel commissioned by Bush concentrated on easing the burden imposed by the Alternative Minimum Tax at the expense of fundamental tax reform. Not surprisingly, the panel's timid recommendations produced little enthusiasm. And the tax issue quickly faded away.

The White House didn't have to acquiesce. It could have pressured the tax commission to come up with a sweeping reform plan. Or it could have proposed its own blueprint for reform. There's no secret about what's needed: lower rates, fewer deductions, a broader tax base, simplification of the tax code, elimination of double taxation of dividends, and a lot more. Instead, the White House let the moment pass.

When I interviewed Bush a year ago, I asked him about his concept of an "ownership society." He had been using the phrase as the theme for his domestic program (with the exception of immigration) and it was beginning to catch on. It included healthcare reform and "lifetime" IRAs, a reform of retirement instruments, as well as tax and Social Security reform. The president was so enthusiastic about this that he cited it in his second inaugural address.

He saw ownership as a boon to personal responsibility, accountability and independence, especially from government. "Government sometimes, because you're dependent on it, undermines the sense of personal responsibility," he said. It was a spur to the poor "not to remain poor and to have that dream of owning something," he told me. And it gave an owner "a vital stake in our country."

Bush inexplicably dropped the phrase from his speeches this year. Perhaps it didn't poll well. Perhaps it was too radical. An "ownership society" represents a sharp new direction in domestic policy designed to encourage citizens to be more self-reliant and less dependent on government. It's a kind of demand-side conservatism with citizens gradually asking for less and less federal assistance.

Now, an "ownership society" is all but forgotten, Republicans as reformers a thing of the past. The party unity that would have come from settling differences on immigration is absent. As a result, Republicans have bickered throughout the 2006 campaign. If they have an agenda for the next two years, they haven't told voters. Democrats don't have an agenda either, they're the "out" party. They can get away with it. Republicans can't.

Reform is appealing to voters because they sense, quite correctly, there's much in need of reform. Besides Social Security and immigration and taxes, there's Congress itself. By skimping on congressional reform, too, Republicans made themselves all the more vulnerable to exaggerated charges of corruption. Reform, of course, is the opposite of corruption.

It's unknowable how many Senate and House seats might have been saved had Republicans championed reform. But surely Republicans would have been better off with a program of reform to flaunt. The campaign would have been elevated. And win or lose, Republicans would have something vital to talk about for the final years of the Bush presidency.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard. The article originally appeared in the November 6, 2006 Wall Street Journal.