Throughout the election, season, Republicans have been on bended knee praying to retain control. Let us be clear: A near-death experience is not a validation of past performance. Its also important to note the GOP held the majority for the last two years as the result of aggressive redistricting and the failure by Democrats to present a coherent message.
In light of a wafer-thin Republican majority in the 110th Congress, Republican leadership must target issues that affect regular Americans. The small-bore thinking that produced an explosion in earmarks and industry-specific subsidies must give way to big ideas. This means addressing the most important national issues of our time, and producing a record of legislative accomplishment by reforming the pension systems, limiting federal spending, and creating choice and competition in education.
Democratic gains in the House and Senate are not a repudiation of the basic conservative tenets that resonate across America. When Democrats want to win elections they pretend to be us, embracing messages of fiscal responsibility and traditional values. When we get insecure, we pretend to be them, creating new government programs and spending freely. All the while, we lose sight of the fact that when were like us, we win.
For congressional Republicans looking at the next election cycle, the challenge cannot be holding the majority, but instead should be growing the majority. Psychologists tell us that often whatever you fear is what you will make happen. It is time to drop the obsession with losing the majority and focus on immigration, retirement security, and spending.
In order to understand the way forward, it is worth remembering how we got into this messmarked by unchecked federal spending, unethical personal behavior, and a remarkable penchant for putting politics ahead of policy. Consider how far we have come in the past dozen years.
Gone is an emphasis on common-sense legislation that wins voters attention and respect. In 1995, after 40 years of Democratic decadence, we made members of Congress live under the same laws as other Americans. In contrast, during the past year, members of both parties have been protected by their own, indicted by law-enforcement officials, and become a disgrace to us all.
The idea of constitutional government, limited to specific objectives, is in retreat. Instead, the appropriations processin which Congress wields its pen over our collective checkbookhas made the distasteful phrase favor factory quaint. Until that process is fundamentally changed, the sordid stories of 2006 will only be the tip of the corruption iceberg.
Like the sacred fire of liberty that animated George Washington, conservative ideas are the guiding light for our slender majority. Recent historical evidence illuminates the point. When we stand for meaningful ideasas Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and as the Contract with America did in 1994we earn voterss continued trust.
Congressional Republicans must clearly communicate their objectives. We all know that we are staring directly at the largest bankruptcy in history with the ballooning costs of Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare. We must not wriggle away from our intent to tackle this crisis. Republicans should talk honestly about a failing government program essential to the retirement plans of millions of Americans. They should not shy away from inevitable attacks. An adult conversation with voters is possible, and mature deliberation can produce a system that respects current commitments, protects future retirees, and establishes positive returns through personal accounts.
Next, Congress must do its job irrespective of the White House and the political machinations endemic to an open presidential race. One of Armeys Axioms is that political ambition is a great compromiser. Congress is designed to produce legislation and provide oversight. It is not a platform for individuals who seek higher office. Neither Congress appropriate constitutional role nor the narrow politics of the presidential selection process is well-served by tactical maneuvers by those on the Hill or in the White House who are eyeing 2008. Legislators are entrusted with the care of a co-equal branch of government, and must not compromise this trust for the ambitions of a few.
In future, Republicans will win on the merits of their proposals. When laws are presented openly and given a fair vote, Congress builds confidence. It shows that members can govern and displays competence. To that end, it is vital for leadership to enforce discipline with committee chairmen. Special-interest fiefdoms should be history; a chairmans sole task should be to translate good ideas into clear, narrowly focused legislation. It only takes a few town-hall meetings to know if your constituents support what is happening in Washington.
In every major poll, the public sees the economy as the number-one priority for Congress and the president. Increasingly the pocketbook voter trusts the Democrats more on economic issues; to date, Republicans have ceded the field. Many pocketbook voters will take dangerous, ill-conceived ideas over no ideas whatsoever, and Republicans will not be so lucky next time. We know what high taxes, over-regulation, and protectionism will do to the economy, and that is what Democrats are proposing. Our belief in the free-market system and entrepreneurship is good for the economy, and voters appreciate that.
The record shows it has been a long time since a majority of congressional Republicans bothered with conservative ideas. Fortunately for the GOP, thoughtful leadership exists in the House in the Republican Study Committee, and from senators like Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
Right before I left Congress, I wrote myself a note. It said: When we come to Washington, we do things we shouldnt to stay in the majority, so we can do the things we know are good for the country. But we never get around to the latter. And the real question is whether you are zealous in the pursuit of liberty, as Barry Goldwater said. If youre zealous in the pursuit of good policies, that will probably get you to the right place.
If youre zealous in the pursuit of saving your seat or saving your majority, youll probably get to a bad place in a hurry. The new Congress must move beyond the obsession with political goals. Theyve forgotten Armeys axiomthat good policy makes good politics.