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Democrats Say Shut Up and Pay Up -- Here's What Conservatives Must Say

Conservatives and moderates can turn Sunday’s vote into the modern left’s final chapter rather than its ultimate triumph.

Sunday’s vote to expand massively the role of government in health care is a hopeful turning point in America—but not the kind President Obama and his Democrats think. Instead, this could represent the best chance since before the 1930s to restore America to its founding principles and reverse the growth of government. The challenge will be in channeling anger at Washington and a likely victory for Republicans in midterm elections into pathways to evolve America’s political dynamic for good.

Since the birthing of Obamacare began, Americans have used every tool at their disposal to signal displeasure at the Democrats’ plans. This included spontaneous protestations at town halls, the formation of the new Tea Party political movement, electing Republicans opposed to Mr. Obama’s plans, and expressing overwhelming disapproval in polls. The message should have been clear: that even though voters fired Republicans in 2006 and 2008, the mandate given to Democrats was not to expand government deeper into every corner of American life. That Democrats proceeded with an attempt to reorder the economy against the wishes of the American people is an act of elitism unparalleled in modern history. Democrats’ message to voters: shut up, pay up, we know better than you.

Revulsion at this—plus a lousy economy that can no longer be blamed on Mr. Obama’s predecessor—are likely to result in Republicans gaining control of one or both houses of Congress this November. There is peril and promise in this. Republicans ought not to play it safe, and instead should advocate a positive agenda, rich in ideas, which accounts for voters’ concerns, including:

1) Replacement of Obamacare with a free-market system that empowers consumers, not bureaucracies.
2) Reform of Congress to make it a citizen legislature, including term limits and an end to gerrymandering congressional districts.
3) Enactment of a flat income tax to revitalize the economy and end Congress’s micromanagement of the economy via a complicated tax code.
4) A requirement for a balanced federal budget.
5) Ending job-killing taxes on investment, including capital gains and dividends taxes.

All of these are unified by a theme of restricting government and expanding the private economy. Each capitalizes on broad disgust at Washington, including polls showing an average 75% disapproval of Congress. They require sustained action at the federal and state level, including amendments to the Constitution.

Why not play it safe and focus solely on repeal of the law passed on Sunday? Direct repeal attempts should go forward on principle, but will be foiled by Mr. Obama’s veto even if the GOP controls Congress after November. Republicans need to offer a set of sharp alternatives that will improve people’s lives and build a sustained political movement. They should go on the offensive against not only Democrats but the assumptions that underlie their policies.

Doing so involves risk. It is always safer to oppose the unpopular than to detail alternatives that will be critiqued. But 2010 offers an opportunity unlike any other before. Analysts looking for comparable elections have invoked the strong Republican years of 1994 and 1978. Instead they should consider 1932. It was in that year of economic depression and perceived capitalist failure that the collectivist, redistributionist dynamic of American politics in the modern era was firmly set. Despite the success of Republican revolutionaries like Reagan and Gingrich, this dynamic has more or less persisted over the long term.

The dynamic holds that government can and should address virtually every problem in society. It also maintains that taking wealth from the more productive and giving it to the less productive is virtuous and effective—all evidence from the past century to the contrary. Ayn Rand best described the apostles of this way of life as “moochers and looters.”

Even though the American people have never endorsed the dynamic when it has been put to them directly, it gained comprehensive acceptance in the media, academia, law, and parts of both political parties. As a result, it justified the move of government into more and more sectors of life. Candidate Obama demonstrated his allegiance to the dynamic during the 2008 campaign when he said he wanted to “spread the wealth around.”

Ironically, the Democrats’ conduct has put this dynamic at risk like never before. Conservatives and moderates can turn Sunday’s vote into the modern left’s final chapter rather than its ultimate triumph. The year 2010 can be looked back upon as our 1932—a new era in America, not just a new chapter.

But doing so will require a complex effort at the federal, state and local level. Congressional Republicans and candidates should pivot to advocating ideas like those above. States should sue the federal government when Congress exceeds the power granted to it by the Constitution. New citizen groups should spring up and object when a state or city council attempts to take on new duties. Efforts to use government to redistribute wealth should be exposed as power grabs at the barrel of a gun—not the acts of virtuous charity they are made out to be. Through steps like this, the collectivist dynamic can be undermined.

Make no mistake, this requires a complex, decentralized effort. It means gambling certain gains in the coming elections for a less certain reordering of America’s political dynamic. But the upside is a republic restored to its original principles and a new prosperity. It is difficult to see how a better opportunity to achieve this will arise.

Christian Whiton was an official in George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is a principal at D.C. Asia Advisory and president of the Hamilton Foundation.

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Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation.  He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration and a policy advisor on the Giuliani and Gingrich presidential campaigns. He is author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books 2013).