Democrats in Washington, confronting a mammoth tidal wave of angry voters as November approaches, are desperate to change the subject. They know there is little they can say about themselves or their record of governing over the past two years that would not worsen their prospects, so they naturally want to talk about Republicans instead. But they seem uncertain whether the problem with Republicans is that they want to do too little or too much.
On the one hand, Democratic leaders argue that Republicans are the “party of no,” and lack any ideas to help get the economy moving again. On the other hand, the same Democrats insist that Republicans have concocted a multitude of painful cuts in benefits and services and are working, as President Obama said last month, “to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda if they win a majority in Congress this fall.” So is there a Republican agenda or isn’t there?
To be fair, the Republicans don’t always seem too sure either. They know voters want a break from two years of too much spending, too much borrowing, too much bailing out, and too much growth in government. There is a lot to be said for just offering to put a stop to it all. At the same time, though, Republicans are drawn to the successful model of 1994’s Contract With America. They think it might be irresponsible to run without a detailed agenda, and they know that while the government has grown too much, the economy has grown too little—so that some pro-growth policy proposals are surely called for. Thus some Republicans (most notably Paul Ryan, with his bold Roadmap for America’s Future) have sought to talk about entitlement reform and budget priorities in some detail, while others have sought to say little lest they give the Democrats a target.
But in fact, Republicans do not face a choice between putting the brakes on the Obama agenda and pursuing their own new course. Rather, the moment calls for doing one and then the other. The country finds itself in a deep hole, and Republicans should offer voters a two-step agenda for recovery: first stop digging, then climb out.
To stop digging the hole, Republicans must arrest the march toward social democracy and its attendant march toward bankruptcy. That means not only saying no to further leftward leaps—like cap and trade legislation, and a value-added tax piled atop our existing income-tax system—but also restoring some predictability where the Democrats’ hyperactive liberalism has created a crushing sense of uncertainty that has kept employers from hiring and investors and consumers from spending.
Democrats, as the president’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel explained in 2008, have sought to use the ongoing economic crisis to achieve all kinds of unrelated goals: health care policy they have craved for decades, environmental policy that has little to do with the economy, more protections for unions, a greater role for government in the financial and automotive sectors, and on and on. In the process, they have made the actual economic crisis worse by making it difficult for consumers, producers, employers, and investors to plan ahead.
Such unpredictability has always made for terrible public policy. As James Madison put it in Federalist 62, “What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant government?” The sheer inconstancy of public policy these past two years, as well as its hostility to economic freedom, have contributed mightily to our economic troubles, and left consumers sitting on cash they are wary of spending and investors keeping their powder dry.
To begin with, then, Republicans should offer the public a break. That means pledging to oppose new spending and taxes, and it means addressing the two greatest policy sources of uncertainty: the Democrats’ health care legislation (which has left families uncertain about whether they can keep their insurance and businesses unsure of future expenses) and the prospect of tax hikes as the Bush tax cuts expire. Republicans should pledge to repeal Obamacare and to retain all of the Bush tax cuts. More broadly, they should commit to resisting any new onerous regulations, taxes, and intrusive expansions of government and to work to remove such burdens where possible. House Republican leader John Boehner took the first steps in that direction this week, pledging to resist new taxes and to roll back spending to pre-crisis levels. Republicans should make the premise of such policies explicit—proposing a two-year break from Washington’s hyperactivity.
Such a break, as a beginning and an organizing principle for the first stage of a Republican agenda, would be good policy and good politics. It would allow investors and employers to plan ahead, and so to begin spending and hiring. It would provide the larger public greater calm in a difficult economic time. It would make it more difficult for Democrats to use a lame duck session of Congress to implement radical plans (and indeed, Republicans should commit to retroactively repeal any legislation passed in the lame duck session other than essential budget bills). And it would be a realistic offer to voters: After all, Republicans can’t run the government from the House of Representatives, or even from the House and a narrowly Republican Senate. They can act as a brake, but as long as President Obama remains in office they cannot really steer much.
Once some stability has been restored and the economy begins to show signs of life again, Republicans can turn to the second stage of a recovery agenda: climbing out of the hole by cultivating the necessary preconditions for vigorous economic growth. This would include easing the tax burdens on families and corporations to spur growth; reforming our entitlement system (through modest means testing and the gradual transformation of defined-benefit programs into defined-contribution programs) to make it both more rational and more sustainable in the long term; advancing genuine health care reform that would actually control costs by using market mechanisms; replacing the government-sponsored enterprises (like Fannie and Freddie) and reckless housing policies that helped spark the economic crisis; ending corporate welfare; reforming the federal budget process to improve its transparency and eliminate some opportunities for waste and corruption; and bringing federal spending and borrowing under control to avert a disastrous currency crisis.
The first stage of such an agenda—ceasing to do harm—will necessarily take up much of the next two years. And it is the essential precondition for the longer-term agenda (which most likely can begin in earnest only in 2012) of turning America back toward liberty, growth, and prosperity.
Republicans addressing an angry public this election season must be honest and humble. There is much they can do to help the country confront the awesome challenges we face, but it cannot all be done at once. First, they must keep Washington from making matters worse. Then, guided by a properly focused and limited sense of the government’s purpose, they must work to restore and sustain America’s strength.
Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.