In a syndicated column, National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru tries to explain how the GOP really lost its way. It seems that Republican Congressmen with a “fixation on ideological purity” have been misleading their party by complaining about government expansion. Republican leaders who lament that their party has been “fiscally irresponsible” are supposedly barking up the wrong tree. When Republicans triumphed in recent presidential races, it was because they were able to put aside their small-government ideology and to promise things that attract votes. Thus George W. Bush was able to win Florida in a tight race in 2000 by promising to expand Medicare to cover prescription drugs. To his credit Bush, and presumably his grey eminence Karl Rove, ignored those doctrinaire Republicans who wish “to avoid accommodation at all costs.” They did whatever it took to get elected.
According to Ponnuru, it was not Bush’s spending on social programs but “the bleeding in Iraq, Washington corruption, wage stagnation and the lack of an agenda to do something about these and other problems “ that led to disastrous Republican defeats in 2006 and 2008. The Republicans may not regain public trust until they recognize Bush’s “real mistakes” as opposed to his imaginary ones. Presumably they will have to do something about getting wages to rise and then offer new social programs in order to win back the presidency.
To the consternation of my readers, I’ll have to admit that I agree with some of this analysis. Although Ponnuru and I are on opposite sides on most philosophical questions, it seems to me that some of his arguments are sound. Americans, like Western Europeans, have moved dramatically to the left on just about every social and economic issue since the middle of the 20th century, and contrary to the bromides that one encounters in Ponnuru’s magazine and similar sources, there is absolutely nothing that would make me believe that Americans are “a right of center people.” Further, Americans do not seem particularly exceptional but about one step behind the English, Canadians, Swedes, Germans, etc., on the road to becoming politically correct social democrats. And it didn’t start with Obama. Both parties, together with the media, public education, and the cultural industry, have been complicit in this process for many decades; and those Republicans who dared to criticize the Bush administration for sounding and acting like liberal Democrats are only waking up to reality.
But there are three problems with Ponnuru’s arguments. One, he is obviously disingenuous in urging Republicans to roll with the punches. Despite his observation that Bush was fighting an unpopular war, he and National Review devoted enormous energy whipping up favor for that war. They have also enthusiastically supported John Bolton, Dick Cheney, and other advocates of the use of American force in support of “our democratic ideals.” Clearly Ponnuru does not want to throw all scruples to the wind. He just wants the GOP to take those foreign policy stands that he and other neoconservatives have prioritized. Meanwhile he dismisses other traditional Republican concerns as ideological purism.
Two, it is doubtful that the GOP could capture the presidency in 2012, with Ponnuru’s presumably preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, without risking wholesale defection and even a third party challenge from the right. Although Ponnuru may not share their priorities, the Ron Paul supporters do not look as if they’re going to swallow another Dole or McCain as a presidential candidate, and certainly not for the sake of a (for them) meaningless GOP victory. Unlike Ponnuru and his colleagues, these folks are not interested in bombing Syria or Iran or filling patronage jobs with neoconservative job applicants. Win or lose, this opposition is about smaller government and minding our business internationally.
Three, I’ve no idea what kind of “policy” Ponnuru intends to apply to the problem of wage-stagnation. We are no longer living in the 1950s, when the U.S. dominated the world economically and when families had generally single wage-earners. Now both sexes are looking for permanent jobs and operating in an economy that has to compete with other countries. Many of these competitors, like the ones on the Pacific Rim, have cheaper production costs than ours. Moreover, our generous immigration policy, which National Review contributors have defended, has had the effect of driving down wages. Ponnuru may believe that there are moral advantages to an expansive immigration policy; nonetheless, Harvard economist George Borjas has demonstrated that such wide open doors are bad for American earnings. Perhaps Ponnuru is suggesting further increments in the minimum wage. What about higher tariffs, to allow us to sell our goods at higher prices, so that we can raise the wages of American workers? Neither policy would add to American competitiveness on the world market or create long-term prosperity. In any case Ponnuru’s magazine has so far rejected these policies.