Ten years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan pronounced the Democratic Party brain dead. The Democrats had "ceased to be a party of ideas," while the Republicans were now "serious about ideas," wrote Moynihan, a man with enough ideas of his own to supply several political parties. Moynihan was right. Spent by the success of the New Deal and having no idea what to do next, by 1980 the Democratic Party was intellectually bankrupt.
It is 10 years later, and another bankruptcy needs to be declared. While blunders are blamed and fingers pointed, the Republican collapse of 1990 is too large to be explained simply by the tactical errors of George Bush in the great budget crunch. Republican malaise goes far deeper than that. The party has run out of ideas.
To be sure, it did not have many to begin with. Two to be exact. (Though that was two more than the Democrats had in the 1980s.) One was peace through strength. The other was growth through low taxes. Reagan and Bush rode these simple and appealing maxims to three smashing electoral victories.
The Republican problem today is that both ideas are dead. Peace through strength is now politically obsolete. And painless prosperity through low taxes has proven false.
Peace through strength has been undone by its own success. Reagan insisted on strength: increased defense spending, unpopular missile deployments, honest "evil empire" rhetoric (today almost the official Moscow line on Brezhnev's U.S.S.R.), and the Reagan Doctrine (the final offensive of the Cold War, which bled the Soviets dry in Brezhnev's far-flung Third World empire.) With strength came peace, victory in the Cold War. There are many reasons for the collapse of the Soviet empire, but one of them certainly is that the United States did not seek some phony armistice with the Soviets as urged by the post-Vietnam accommodationists of the '70s.
There is only one problem with peace through strength as a unifying and winning political idea. It is now as obsolete as communism. It still has application, of course, in places like the Persian Gulf. But this is a harder sell. Soviet missiles were a threat to the American homeland and Soviet ideology a threat to the American idea. Iraq is neither.
Since Vietnam, the Republican Party has been the nationalist party. But as shown by the rise of conservative isolationism, in a post-Cold War world Republicans are finding it much harder to articulate a coherent nationalist program.
To be sure, the still nebulous "new world order" is a glimmer of an idea. On domestic policy, however, Republican thinking has collapsed completely. Growth through low taxes, inflated by Bush to no-new-taxes, was by nature a time-limited proposition. Once the Laffer Curve free lunch was shown to be nonsense, it became clear that though low taxes could produce growth and jobs and prosperity, they could not do so forever because they also produced fantastic debt, now exceeding $3 trillion.
It was only a matter of time before Bush bent to reality and agreed to new taxes. That may save the economy, but it will sink the Republican Party. No-new-taxes was, after all, Bush's only domestic idea. Its beauty was that it was not just an idea, it was an idea stopper. No taxes meant never having to say which taxes. Republicans were insulated from ever having to face the real question of governance: choosing who gets taxed and how much.
Which is why Republican politicians who for a decade prospered politically behind the tax shield were apoplectic when Bush gave it up. They understood that it would leave them defenseless to Democratic charges that they are the party of the rich.
Once Bush came down from the Andrews Summit and presented the country with a list of service cuts and gas and beer taxes, people realized that the game was up. Somebody was going to have to pay past and present bills, and Bush had decided which ones. Bushonomics was exposed as nothing more than classic (i.e., pre-Reagan) Republican trickle-down economics, a known political loser.
Take away no-new-taxes, and what does the Republican Party stand for? Cutting the capital gains tax, Bush insisted for a while. But this is not just a paltry substitute for no-new-taxes. It is a hopelessly class-biased substitute. It plays directly into Democratic hands by reviving the pre-Reagan image of country club Republicanism.
In any case, Bush caved on capital gains too. Even half an idea is more than the party is now capable of sustaining.
What does a party do when it runs out of ideas? It can only hope that the other guy has even fewer ideas. This time, however, the Democrats may not cooperate. The soak-the-rich, burden-the-allies, pro-choice Democrats are stirring. It is too soon to say that they are out of their coma. But there is movement beneath the eyelids.