Memo To: Political Fans, Browsers, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Last Tuesday
The following appeared on Page One of the "Outlook" section of Sunday's Washington Post. It was written prior to Newt Gingrich's announcement that he will resign from Congress, but a mention of that news was added before it went to press. I'm sure the Post won't mind if we reproduce the essay on this website, but if you want to see it at the Post site, here is the address: <http://search.washingtonpostcom/wp-srvAVPlate/1998-ll/08/126M10898-idx,html>
That Sinking Feeling
The Party; With No Agenda, What Can You Expect?
By Jack Kemp
Sunday, November 8, 1998; Page Cl
The 1998 midterm election was a referendum on Republican performance, not on the impeachment issue or on either party's agenda for 1999. If it were either, voters would have granted Republicans a larger majority or given control of Congress to the Democrats. What voters did was withhold a larger majority from the Republicans and grant the GOP a second chance to get its act together.
At the same time, the voters sent the Republican Party several clear messages. First, a substantial number of Republicans, frustrated with their party's long vacation in 1998, either stayed home or voted Democratic. The electorate is practically shouting for Republicans to finish the job Ronald Reagan began in reforming the tax and regulatory apparatus. Instead, the party's cultural conservatives and religious activists insisted that it was more important to avoid risky reforms. They made the decision to sit on their hands, wait for a cultural backlash and rely on voters to punish the Democratic party for supporting a president who had misbehaved in his private life and lied about it to a grand jury.
Second, after seeing that Republicans were willing to put economic expansion at risk by betting on cultural issues, black and Hispanic voters who have begun to inch their way into jobs that pay a living wage voted overwhelmingly for Democrats (with a few exceptions). But minority voters also showed a high degree of sophistication: They gave more support to Republican governors who had cut taxes and practiced affirmative outreach.
Third, too many of us in the party remained silent for too long as the campaign went awry. We hoped that behind-the-scenes encouragement might change the direction of the party's leaders in time to produce meaningful legislative results. Throughout the summer, as I became increasingly alarmed at the course of events, I made my concerns known privately. I had come to believe that in promoting policies of fiscal austerity, at home and abroad, President Clinton and congressional Republicans were endangering Reagan's legacy: economic prosperity at home and the growth of democratic capitalism around the globe.
Finally, on Oct. 8, I went public with my concerns, warning that the Republican Party was adrift — without an agenda and without purpose beyond its seeming preoccupation with saving its congressional incumbents. The GOP leaders in Washington kept saying, "Wait until next year," but I pointed out that voters may think that a political party whose leaders are unwilling to risk losing a vote on principle once it is in office is unworthy of winning the next election.
In all honesty, I have to acknowledge that out of friendship to the party's congressional leaders, I waited far too long before going public with my criticisms. Thankfully, in spite of our shortcomings, the electorate found us worthy enough to leave us in charge of the House and Senate, albeit with the slimmest of margins.
In one sense, Republicans should be gratified. Tuesday's results demonstrated the limitations of a political campaign built around only cultural and social issues. It is impossible to separate the culture from the economy; a strong culture requires a strong economy. Those party intellectuals and opinion leaders who gambled this election on a cultural backlash are now licking their wounds and pondering their failures. There is absolutely a place for them in the party of Lincoln, but it can't be in a dictatorial role. Conservative social engineering is every bit as presumptuous as liberal social engineering.
Americans prefer to receive their spiritual fulfillment in churches, synagogues and mosques. They are conservative in their values but they want a progressive conservatism, not a reactionary conservatism. I don't believe Americans want politicians and their political parties to obfuscate on the hard questions of character or become moral relativists in the process. Americans want their leaders to be entrepreneurs of political ideals. And as any entrepreneur will attest, this is not a business for the faint-hearted because the failure rate is so high. But we can never forget Winston Churchill's admonition that defeat is never fatal, victory is never final, it's courage that counts.
Where do we go from here? I am convinced that Republicans can win the entrepreneurial competition of ideas. Our disappointing performance last week demonstrates that a failure to stand on principle is ultimately a losing strategy. No one is more vengeful than voters who feel they have squandered their vote on timid, disingenuous politicians.
We've had four years in the majority with poor results. Federal taxes are at an all-time high, budget surpluses loom as far as the eye can see, and we still haven't managed more than a token reduction in tax rates. In the midst of this economic plenty, the lack of employment and educational choice in our inner cities is staggering.
This first weekend after Election Day '98 is too soon to be suggesting a catalog of party positions for the 106th Congress. I think it's enough to say that Republican congressional leaders, particularly Newt Gingrich's successor as Speaker, need to put the president's special problems out of their minds and into the hands of the House Judiciary Committee. They can then tap the great pool of ideas that has been churning under their noses since Reagan left office.
Reagan espoused a conservatism that was based on traditional values and morality without legislating personal behavior. He knew that economic growth, personal freedom and equality of opportunity will allow America's faith-based institutions to thrive and provide a moral compass without government interference. Republicans must now demonstrate to the electorate—and especially to the minority communities—that we possess the vision and strategy to help all people get a shot at the American Dream.
Jack Kemp, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1996, is co-director of Empower America.
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company