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Can Republicans Govern?

Not unless they change The Narrative.

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By JEFF BERGNER
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A more limited threat to The Narrative arose in the form of President George W. Bush’s short-lived effort to “privatize Social Security.” Here was a far-reaching and bold proposal. It was predicated, to be sure, on an over-optimistic reading of the results of a close election in 2004—but it was nonetheless a significant departure from The Narrative. Its intent was to connect citizens more closely with their retirement income and to lessen the dependence of seniors on U.S. government-issued checks, the amounts of which are determined by the formulas of Washington politicians. This attack on The Narrative could not be allowed to stand. The idea was not merely unwise, but risky, dangerous, cruel, and heartless. Its political shelf life was brief. 

Judging by its rhetoric, the left seems singularly threatened by Sarah Palin, but they can’t explain why. Because she’s attractive? So are most politicians, including the current president. Because she’s from Alaska? So are Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski. Because she lacks “experience”? So do lots of politicians, including the current president. Does anyone imagine that a few more years of “experience” will cause Sarah Palin’s critics to warm up to her? The left simply cannot supply a convincing rationale for its own mania. That a wife and mother is successful in public life and is also a conservative, populist reformer should not be possible. A political reformer opposed to the expansion of the federal government should be a contradiction in terms. Sarah Palin can undo by her simple existence every stereotype of the left’s Narrative. This creates a visceral threat. It cannot be permitted, or even laughed off—she must be destroyed. The threat to The Narrative is what provokes the name-calling and bizarrely substance-free personal attacks that have flowed relentlessly from Palin’s critics.



Another Story Altogether

What if Republicans took back the House in 2010? Or, to enlarge the fantasy, what if Republicans enjoyed the numerical advantage of today’s Democrats in the House and Senate? Would they actually do anything to reverse the growth of government? Republican majorities would surely strive to slow the rush to national financial ruin and rein in unsustainable deficits, and that’s all to the good. Government-imposed equality might advance more slowly. But what are the chances it would be halted or reversed? For that matter, what did Republicans do as recently as five years ago, when they controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House?

So long as Republicans are enthralled by The Narrative, they will be stuck in rearguard actions. There will be no coherent set of policies toward which Republicans aim steadily over time, such as characterizes the progressive left. There will be only the (almost endearing) Republican embarrassment about governing at all. 

So Republicans must ask themselves: Are they really ready to reverse the trend of more and more Americans becoming dependent upon government? Do they really deny the working assumption that most Americans don’t know what’s best for them, and that public policy must set them straight? Are they willing to act so that initiative does not meet bureaucratic obstacles at every turn, and regulations don’t hamper every creative venture? Do they actually disdain an ideal of justice that conjures up an image of well-fed and well-tended sheep?

What if Republicans aimed at a different story altogether? What if the story of America were one in which government imposed ever less control over citizens? What if they considered every policy initiative through this lens: Does it help Americans become less, rather than more, dependent on the government? Their goal would then be to create—as best they can, and over time—a nation of self-reliant citizens, not merely “consumers” and “providers” and “practitioners” and “beneficiaries” and “recipients” and all the other less-than-fully-human descriptors of the left.

What if our national history were recast and understood in this new light? What if we reminded ourselves that it was the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that ended slavery and the Democratic party that dragged its feet? That it was the Republican party that pushed through women’s suffrage? That Republicans like Senator Everett Dirksen were leaders in the civil rights legislation of the 1960s? The overthrow of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, the end of segregation all empowered people vis à vis their government. And these advances in citizen empowerment were then wrongly put to the service of (seemingly well-intentioned) egalitarian programs that result not in the improvement of America’s citizenry but in their perpetual dependence?

This would be arduous work. It would require Republicans not simply to oppose current Democratic policy initiatives, but to reinterpret the broad course of American history. It would also require Republicans to end their blind acquiescence to the Democrats’ demand to be judged by the purity of their intentions. The so-called purity of the Democrats’ intentions should count for nothing, nothing at all. One cannot have witnessed the effects of the left’s policies over the past 60 years—the poverty, the destruction of families, the coarsening of public life, the despair of dependency, the financial bankruptcy, the politicization of everything, and the lack of a global compass—one cannot have seen this and think that good intentions should count for anything. 

Walter Lippmann identified the problem as long ago as 1937:


In the name of progress, men who call themselves communists, socialists, fascists, nationalists, progressives, and even liberals, are unanimous in holding that government with its instruments of coercion must by commanding the people how they shall live, direct the course of civiliza-tion.   .  .  .  So universal is the dominion of this dogma over the minds of contemporary men that no one is taken seriously as a statesman or a theorist who does not come forward with proposals to magnify the power of public officials and to extend and multiply their intervention in human affairs. 


Republicans will learn to govern well only when they free themselves from the pseudo-inevitability of this dogma.


What if? What if a new Republican interpretation of American history succeeded in breaking apart the false conflation of Democratic efforts to consolidate power with political virtue? 

First, Republicans might lose their shame about actually governing. The Republicans’ badge of honor—their reluctance to govern, their hesitance to press an affirmative agenda of their own—might be overcome. Republicans might actually learn to use the levers of power, if only to reverse our national course.

Second, Republicans would discover what they have lacked so long: a cornucopia of policy ideas that could shape a legislative and regulatory agenda for decades to come. It is not that Republicans haven’t put forward good initiatives from time to time; what they’ve lacked is a long-term vision that produces a wide and coherent menu of policies. Though correct in principle, the mantra of “lower taxes and less regulation” is too narrow to amount to such a vision. An affirmative vision of ever-expanding citizen empowerment is one that can generate initiatives and policies that build upon each other, unlike today’s almost random occasional departures from the unrelenting growth of the left-Hegelian administrative state. 

Such a policy agenda would address at least four broad areas: 

(1) Entitlements. Direct payments to Americans are bankrupting the country. Worse, they are creating massive and unhealthy dependence and ever-expanding state power. 

- On health care, we should do no (more) harm. Republicans have rightly opposed creation of a massive new government-run entitlement. But Republicans had 15 years between the last attempt to impose such a program in 1994 and the current attempt, and in that time they failed to address the genuine health care concerns of the American people. They should not make that mistake again. Republicans should support cost containment by fostering insurance competition across state lines, the expansion of health savings accounts, sensible tort reform, and insurance portability. These and similar steps will solidify the private sector foundation of the American health care system and obviate any need for yet another Democratic effort at nationalization.

- Many direct payment programs, such as agricultural commodity support programs, aim to ameliorate systemic risk. They should be replaced with risk insurance, priced to reflect best estimates of true risk.

- Such programs are designed to carry Americans through temporary difficulties. Too often the programs are extended and re-extended, sometimes more or less permanently. Let’s take a page from our recent experience with the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The conditions for receiving TARP funds were such that banks sought to escape from the program as soon as they could. Let’s reorient our social safety net programs so they meet genuine needs but also encourage recipients to provide for themselves as soon as possible. The successful welfare reform of the 1990s—which the left wrongly predicted would be catastrophic—provides an excellent model.

- The hardest entitlements to reform are the most popular and expensive—Social Security, Medicare, and Medi-caid. All of these are unsustainable—bankrupt—in their current form. It is not a political prejudice, but a mathematical certainty that they will have to be reformed. When the time comes, Republicans should support reforms that adjust age levels, means-test benefits, and wherever possible move Americans toward private insurance and retirement plans. Social Security and Medicare have both traded on the now false notion that they are social insurance programs, when they are in fact generational welfare schemes. Congressman Paul Ryan has proposed a thoughtful “road map” for needed reforms. 

(2) Free speech. Freedom of speech is vital to a free people, but is everywhere under assault by the left. It belongs at the center of a new agenda. 

- We need new laws protecting the constitutional right to the free expression of religious views. 

- The regulation of campaign speech should end, a project the Supreme Court happily advanced in a recent decision. 

- A new job description is needed for the Federal Election Commission, restricting it to providing financial transparency in political campaigns.

- Public financing of presidential campaigns should end. This is a highly unpopular provision of law, of which the Obama campaign made a special mockery.

- Taxpayer-financed speech such as National Public Radio should end. 

- Federal assistance should not flow to colleges or universities that adopt “speech codes.”

(3) The federal government. The federal government, with its 2.8 million civilian employees, has become a self-perpetuating machine, insulated from the problems of ordinary Americans by ever-greater disparities in job security, pay, and benefits. The average government salary is north of $70,000, and a fifth of all federal employees make more than $100,000, in a country where the per capita income is just over $40,000. 

- Since federal employees are not smarter or more virtuous than other Americans, we should bring federal salaries and benefits back into line with those of the private sector. 

- Federal government employee unions have become venal “special interests,” providing campaign contributions and other election support directly to the officials who set their salaries and benefits. This should end, if necessary by banning federal employee unions—which were first authorized by an executive order in 1962. 

- To make it clear that elected officials are not expected to make permanent careers in Washington, even opponents of term limits (like me) could agree to abolish retirement benefits for elected and presidentially appointed officials.

(4) American exceptionalism. Let’s aim to be respected abroad, not loved.

- America was built on the strength of immigrants. A more open and generous provision for legal immigration would welcome people who want to share in the American dream and are prepared to follow our laws. This can make us stronger. But let’s also defend our borders and end illegal immigration.

- America has a special role in helping people in other lands who share our values and who wish to be free. We should champion people who seek to free themselves from oppressive governments. We should give them moral support and, where prudent, material aid.

- We should be staunch supporters of free trade and investment.

- We should defend Internet freedom, even if this results in diplomatic difficulties with nations that seek to control their people’s access to information.

- We should reorient our public diplomacy away from selling American consumerism and popular music and otherwise currying favor with foreign populations. Current polling abroad shows this doesn’t work anyway. Instead, we should remind the world that we are a nation of free people, who cherish free speech and individual conscience and oppose religious fanaticism and political violence. If other people hold other values, so be it.


None of this will go down easily. There will be bitter claims that Republicans are “politicizing” matters. This is straight out of the left’s playbook: Politicize everything, and then scream loudly if anyone seeks redress. 

Formulating a new American narrative and governing in accord with it is not a task for the faint-hearted. But the effort is worth it. Unlike the left’s initiatives, too many of which must be disguised and misrepresented at every turn, these initiatives can be crafted to win genuine popular support. These initiatives, moreover, are likely to achieve their stated purposes, unlike those of the left, and can be expanded and developed over time. Tocqueville pointed out in the 1830s that strong forces in modern democracies press toward equality and passivity at the expense of liberty and self-government. But he also noted that these forces are not fated to prevail. 


Jeff Bergner has served as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, assistant secretary of state, and professor of government. His forthcoming book is on the role of German idealist philosophy in shaping the modern idea of a human being.

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