President Obama’s State of the Union speech will remind us that the Third Way, the Clintonian moderate impulse, has been stone-cold dead since Bill Clinton left office 14 years ago. Either in opposition or in the White House, the Democratic Party has become thoroughly McGovernized. It is, as it was more than 40 years ago, the party of weakness abroad and the ever-expanding welfare state at home. Hence the president is offering a soak-the-rich tax plan, more government spending and “free” stuff such as community college education. None of it is going anywhere, and all of it is based on 1970s thinking. In Obama’s mind, it is always a zero-sum game in which making the rich poorer makes the poor richer, and there are no adverse consequences from higher taxes nor the need to demonstrate the efficacy of more spending.
Republicans, however, would be foolish merely to point out that the welfare state programs have been ineffective in reducing the poverty rate or that increasing the tax on capital gains affects investment and in turn economic growth. (Republicans might want to cite Hillary Clinton for the proposition that capital gains taxes should be capped at 20 percent.) They can’t only point to the evidence that the stimulus plan passed almost six years ago created more debt, not economic growth, or argue that it is foolish to allow unimpeded growth in entitlement programs that disproportionately benefit older, more affluent Americans while national security is dangerously insufficient and the measure of “success” for domestic programs remains dollars spent and no results obtained. In short, liberals still believe that if we only give out enough “free” stuff, then poverty, inequality, joblessness and other ills will fade away.
Rather, it is incumbent on the GOP House and Senate leadership and on GOP presidential hopefuls to offer more than critical analysis; they need alternatives. It begins by understanding the problem. As Peter Wehner put it:
Rather than speak about the economy in broad abstractions, moreover, conservatives need to explain how government policy now places needless burdens on the shoulders of working families and how they would lift those burdens and put government on the side of people working to better their conditions. Rather than talk about the poor and those Americans receiving government assistance as “takers” or dependents, conservatives need to explain how emphasizing and enabling work and mobility would be better for the poor and better for the country. Rather than talk about conservatism exclusively as a set of rules about what government should not be doing, they need to help Americans see the conservative vision of American life—and of America’s government—as a way to unleash the nation’s potential.
After recognizing the challenges facing the middle class (stagnant wages, rising health-care costs, increased student debt and decreased job prospects, etc.) and the poor (rotten schools, lack of upward mobility, rising poverty, etc.), the GOP needs to move to concrete solutions that are better than Democrats’ ideas, which shouldn’t be hard since the liberals have not had many new ideas and even fewer good ones since the LBJ administration.
On taxes, Obama’s obsession with going after the rich does nothing for the middle class or the poor. Republicans need an alternative tax plan that increases investment and growth and affords middle-class families some relief from the high cost of raising children.
Instead of giving away “free” community college education, the Republicans should focus on the real problem, which David Brooks identifies as not lack of access to community college (which “is already free for most poor and working-class students who qualify for Pell grants and other aid,” meaning the “Obama plan would largely be a subsidy for the middle- and upper-middle-class students who are now paying tuition and who could afford to pay it in the years ahead”). Instead, Republicans should recognize: “The tuition piece of the Obama proposal is Human Capital 1.0. It is locked in 1970s liberal orthodoxy. Congress should take the proposal, scrap it and rededicate the money toward programs that will actually boost completion, that will surround colleges, students and their families with supporting structures. We don’t need another program that will lure students into colleges only to have them struggle and drop out.” Moreover, Republicans would be wise to look at the suggestions from three Republican senators — Roy Blunt (Mo.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) — for how to implement reforms and streamline financial aid. The Republicans answer should not be “Obama’s plan costs too much,” but rather “It does not help the people it intends to.”
Likewise, Republicans should try to chip away at Obamacare. But they need to make the case why it is not working (health-care costs keep rising, people lose their choice of doctor, young and healthy people are forced to overbuy healthcare insurance, the employer mandate discourages hiring) and then propose an alternative. In short, Obamacare is not merely a threat to the abstract concept of limited government; rather, it is a hugely expensive program that fails to help millions of people obtain affordable insurance. Republicans can then advance one of the many alternatives floating around that eliminate the mandates and equalize tax treatment of individually purchased plans. Republicans should also push for Medicaid reform. The president, yet again, pushed to expand a program but did not improve it. Republicans should support efforts like the one in Indiana that promotes work and personal responsibility and gives the poor access to better healthcare choices.
It is not wrong to help the middle class and poor. Rather, it is wrong to sell them a bill of goods based on “1970s liberal orthodoxy” that does not improve the lives of ordinary Americans. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has offered an anti-poverty agenda that may actually reduce poverty. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and others have offered tax reform that can encourage growth and help middle-class families. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and others have laid out health-care reforms that would be an improvement on Obamacare. Now Republicans need to get behind these sorts of reforms and pass them. Then Obama can decide if he wants to veto them or if he really wants to make progress on the economic and social ills that have worsened under his presidency.