Washington Matters


Taxes, Spending and the Future of the GOP



All the bloodletting, finger-pointing and harrumphing heard from Republicans this past week is understandable, given the drubbing the party took in the election. But now it's time to get up, dust themselves off and figure out how they can help President-elect Obama govern a country faced with huge challenges and problems. One suggestion is to stop the obsession with cutting taxes and government spending.

Not that tax policy and restraining government spending aren't important. Of course they are. But in the campaign that just ended, Republicans acted as though nothing else was. As the country sank into a financial crisis, John McCain kept talking about his tax cuts and the horrors of earmarks. House Republicans who wanted to kill the financial rescue package suggested that cutting capital gains taxes would be the real ticket out of disaster.

Frankly, Republicans sounded like the snake-oil salesmen of old, promising that their special elixir would calm nerves, cure chronic coughs and weeping rashes, hush colicky babies and remove rust from hen house gates.

Earlier this week, I suggested that Barack Obama has to govern with bold but pragmatic ideas instead of operating from a broad set of idological precepts or wish lists from interest groups. I'd give the same advice to Republicans.That's why the argument the public is overhearing about which direction the GOP should take -- return to conservative ideals or move more to the center -- is so silly. Americans are tired of trying to gauge policy proposals on the basis of ideological purity tests and political advantage. They want and expect ideas that will work.

That's why the battle over the chairmanship of the Republican Party is so important and will be so telling. Is the party going to pick a political strategist who thinks only about which tactics will knock off the Democratic Party that now controls both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue? Or will it seek one that wants to build the GOP into a party of ideas that might be able to influence the coming debates over which industries should get help from the government; what type of stimulus package has the best shot of shortening the recession; and what approach has the best chance of stabilizing Afghanistan.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is an intriguing candidate for the job because he is one of the few lawmakers in the party who can lay claim to being both a serious conservative policy wonk and a rabble-rousing insurgent. Gingrich may understand better than most that this may be a time to rally around ideas and promote the cause of governance. He bluntly told The New York Times today that the party has to come to grips with its inability to lead: "We need to be honest about the level of failure for the past eight years and why Republican government didn't succeed."

Gingrich understands this is a new world, and not just because Obama won. The very concepts of how government and commerce should interact has changed virtually overnight. And it was a Republican president who embraced and led that change. You need look no further to measure the change than the president of the National Association of Manufacturers (a former Republican governor of Michigan, by the way), who proposed a 25-year strategy for public investment in infrastructure. That tells you instantly that the debate over whether we need more far-reaching economic and industrial planning -- once utterly scorned and dismissed by the GOP -- is over.

The question facing the country now is what that plan will look like. And the question facing Republicans is whether they want a role in supplying the answer.





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