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Republicans hit rock bottom

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 3, 2005

Conservatives, it’s time to put aside partisan loyalties and speak frankly: the Republican majority in Washington, now approaching its 11th year, is floundering. If the GOP does not right its course, defeat may be ahead in 2006 and victory may not really matter.

Many of the voters who were most enthusiastic about the 1994 elections results are today among the most disenchanted. The quick, bipartisan confirmation of John Roberts as chief justice is a single success floating in a sea of failure and increasing incompetence.

Consider: In the last few months, every major Republican policy initiative has stalled. Social Security reform, once the great hope for a second Bush term, appears to be headed nowhere. Moderate senators are objecting to the extension of the 2003 tax cuts on dividends and capital gains. The transportation bill came in at $286 billion, containing 6,300 pork-filled earmarks, making a mockery of the administration’s earlier veto threat.

The GOP has been reduced to running on a platform of tawdry pork-barrel politics. But this profligacy exacts a cost. Congress was running at $331 billion budget deficit. That was before Hurricane Katrina struck. The House leadership added every dime of the initial $62.3 billion relief bill to the deficit and more federal money is on the way to the Gulf Coast. Louisiana officials, hands outstretched, are demanding $250 billion for their state alone.

When the Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives led by Congressman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), publicly floated possible spending cuts to offset the relief spending, the leadership’s response was to reprimand him rather than praise him.

Excluding national defense and homeland security, federal spending has increased $300 billion between 2001 and 2005. Under George W. Bush and a Republican Congress, inflation-adjusted federal spending has risen faster than under Lyndon B. Johnson. Like Johnson, President Bush appears to believe we can wage war abroad while growing government at home.

We can pay for this spending by borrowing, putting our currency valuation at risk and relying on China and other foreign countries to help finance our federal government. We can inflate our way out of our fiscal irresponsibility. Or we can raise taxes. The Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire unless Congress specifically extends them or makes them permanent. The deficit puts those tax cuts at risk. Taxes are likely to rise either for today’s taxpayers or those not yet born.

Republican leaders are behaving as if they will be in the majority forever. Last week’s indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who has at least temporarily relinquished his leadership role, appears somewhat dubious. The charges against Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), frequently mentioned as a presidential possibility in 2008, look more serious, though uncertain.

But from Jack Abramoff to contract spending in Iraq, the culture that attaches to political leaders who feel safe and unaccountable is emerging around the GOP. This is not yet the Congress of Democrats Jim Wright and Dan Rostenkowski, but the indications of where it is heading are not encouraging. M. Stanton Evans’ quip about conservatives coming to Washington thinking it’s a sewer but then treating it like a hot tub has never seemed more apt.

The GOP majority has given us some accomplishments in years past: tax cuts, welfare reform, modest free-market reforms in agricultural policy. We have even seen some conservative policy achievements under the Bush administration: the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the partial-birth abortion ban, an expansion of medical savings accounts and a number of conservative judicial appointments.

But let’s look at the recent big picture. This administration and this congressional majority have given America the biggest new federal entitlement in 30 years, worsened the looming Medicare solvency crisis, added a new Cabinet-level department, expanded federal power in response to every disaster and approved record federal education spending increases under No Child Left Behind. The flow of illegal immigrants into this country now outnumbers that of legal immigrants, but workplace enforcement is down since 1999 and all Washington can contemplate is amnesties and guest-workers programs.

This isn’t what any of us, in Republican politics or the conservative movement, signed up for. It is what we entered politics to defeat.

Many conservatives remain loyal to Bush and continue to vote Republican solely because of the war on terror. Yet we remain far from a lasting settlement or even clearly defined goals in Iraq. The decision by Congressman Walter Jones (R-N.C.) of “freedom fries” fame to cosponsor a resolution that would hasten our withdrawal from Iraq indicates that some conservatives are beginning to have second thoughts about whether that invasion really aided our war against terrorism.

This raises hard questions. The Democrats, stuck in the 1960s, offer no viable alternative. Is it possible that no majority party can fight for limited government or avoid being tainted by the Beltway culture? Is there a way out or have we labored in vain?

Republican consultants may console themselves that dissatisfied conservatives have nowhere else to go. But people who have nowhere to go usually stay home.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

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