WASHINGTON — When Democrats gibber about Republicans' writhing in a culture of corruption, they're on to something — but not what they think. The Republican Party in Washington is in trouble not because it's overrun by crooks, but because it's packed with cowards — and has degenerated into a caricature of the party that swept to power 11 years ago promising to take on the federal bureaucracy and liberate the creative genius of American society.
The collapse stems from the simplest and most natural of causes, the survival instinct. Within months of seizing power in 1995, Republicans began backing away from Big Ideas, from tort reform to the necessary overhaul of the Social Security system. They started consulting pollsters to assay "correct" issues and positions. They played it safe — or so they thought.
Over time, imagination-grabbing ideas melted away. Gone was the Reaganite breadth of vision, and in its place stood the musty idol of Incumbency. Republicans drew the wrong morals from the decline and fall of Newt Gingrich. They thought his boldness got him in trouble, and chose to crib plays from the Bill Clinton playbook — tacking left, at least oratorically, so as to appease, rather than confront, their critics.
Hence, George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" — a slogan that exceeded skeptics' worst expectations. That phrase, aimed at reassuring suburban white moms and queasy left-wing Republicans, became a white flag on the core issue of government size and might. Bush insiders even began boasting about "big government" conservatism — oblivious to the fact that big government does not conserve or preserve; it crushes and digests, devouring institutions that challenge its supremacy.
Leaders in the Party of Lincoln stopped talking about people, and started talking about programs and expenditures. They justified head-snapping shifts in policy by claiming the need to take issues "off the table." The multi-trillion dollar Medicare "reform" is a case in point. It was designed less to save a system than to deny Democrats a talking point. Yet, the only things Republicans really took off the table were their moral authority and the loyalty of their partisans.
This helps explain one of the great ironies of the age. We live in what ought to be an era of Republican triumphalism. The president's one reliable bit of domestic-policy conservatism, his tax-cut agenda, has succeeded brilliantly. The most recent Commerce Department figures peg the third quarter economic growth rate at a sizzling 4.3 percent — despite the ravages of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the oil shocks that followed.
Republicans have won the battle over whether centralized bureaucracies can eradicate poverty, or perform social services more efficiently than private or volunteer operations. Throughout the country, the same patterns appear: Where elected officials govern with a light touch and without imposing onerous tax and regulatory burdens, prosperity flourishes — and people flock to the scene. "progressive" states, on the other hand, are becoming empty husks, with more rigid class distinctions than in any other section of the country.
The GOP also wins big on values. Virtually every time the ACLU files a lawsuit, Democrats lose supporters. Despite these advantages, however, the GOP founders. Its Washington potentates simply refuse to embrace the party's ideals or successes (including the war). They have forgotten the most important rule of political survival: If you want to remain an incumbent for long, you don't jettison your principles. You act on them.
When House Speaker Denny Hastert broke arms to secure votes for a pork-packed highway bill, calling the legislation a "jobs bill," it was an embarrassment. When the president signed a campaign-finance bill he called unconstitutional, he seemed to lack not only conviction, but vision.
Fortunately, irate constituents roused some conservatives from their dogmatic slumbers. Young Republicans rebelled against the apostasy of their elders, especially in the matter of the federal budget, and state parties seized the initiative on everything from spending limitations to school choice.
Capitol Hill Republicans now admit their Democratic colleagues don't want peace — they want the Alamo. So the GOP is fighting back. Hastert approved calling the bluff of anti-victory Democrats last week by demanding a floor vote on the idea of vamoosing Iraq immediately. He scored another triumph this week by restoring the good name of the National Christmas Tree.
Who knows, he may even figure out the Paradox of Incumbency. Politicians who run just to protect incumbency may save their seats, but only by destroying their party's heart and soul. If you really want to build lasting power in politics, you need to forget about mere incumbency — and remember the principles that got you elected in the first place.