Today's style section in the Washington Post features newly minted House Minority Whip, Congressman Eric Cantor. He seems to be decidedly undecided on what can move the GOP forward in upcoming election cycles:
On his nightstand, Cantor heaps prescriptions for his ailing party: "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," by David Frum, formerly a speechwriter for President Bush; "The Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream," by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. He pores over newspaper columns, he says, seeking wisdom "from the George Wills of the world, the Bill Kristols of the world, the Charles Krauthammers of the world."
"I'm very fixated on trying to determine what went wrong and how we can fix it," he says over toasted cheese sandwiches and tuna melts at a pharmacy diner here.
But the answers aren't east to find.
He keeps looking.
"Nobody," he says, "is right on the money yet."
(Is there a difference between "grilled cheese" and "toasted cheese" sandwiches?) Anyhow, let me humbly attempt to present a "prescription" that Cantor and others could consider.
There have been a lot of healthy debates on this site, most of which I've been proud to contribute to: how to view and use new media, fixing the movement vs. resetting the movement, top-down idea creation vs. grassroots idea growth. Michael Turk asked a few weeks ago: which comes first - ideas for message? The answer is clear: ideas. But it means that we have to increase our intellectual capacity and creativity with both the ideas and the messaging of those ideas. Example: McCain Health Tax Credit = Good Idea; McCain's Explanation of His Plan = Terrible.
Like Newt Gingrich's Contract with America in 1994, Republicans need to coalese our principles and our ideas into a unifying theme: An Agenda of Equal Opportunity. With a specific set of economic issues, Congressmen Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor have made good attempts with the Roadmap for America's Future and the Middle Class Bill of Rights, respectively. But, of course, there are more than economic issues, more than fiscal conservatives in the movement, and many principles tied to those issues. Having our unifying theme being an Agenda of Equal Opportunity can battle the New "New Deal" that the Obama administration is and will be presenting. Let's take a look at the principles, the issues, the infrastructure and the reasons why this theme might work.
The Principles and the Issues
The Left's ideas about everything, especially on issues of economic and social policy, are based on equal outcomes. The fact is that it's a populist message that works with a large swath of voters, especially during hard economic times: attacking business, trying to make a progressive tax code even more progressive, promoting class warfare, etc. Using the theme of "equal opportunity" for all issues could be a strong pivot point that can be used directly against the "equal outcome" message from the Democrats. We know what their end goal is. Surprisingly enough, the end goals of in an Agenda of Equal Opportunity are long held principles that should be reinforced.
First, we should have Equal Opportunity Agenda items that promote freedom. It's obvious how promoting freedom appeals to the libertarians and fiscal conservatives within the party: tax policy that promote growth instead of picking winners and losers, defending the 2nd Amendment (Thank you, Dick Heller), etc. How can we reach cultural conservatives through this principle? There are several instances where the the far left have made unusual restrictions against religious worship in public arenas, or even worse, allowing for a public religious pluralism (which I'm not against) that discriminates against the Christian majority (which I am against). People should not only have the equal opportunity to build wealth and succeed; they should also have the equal opportunity to speak, not speak, worship, or not worship as they choose.
Back to the economic issues, the theme of regulation of free markets have come up over and over again through this economic crisis. How do we counter the anti-market rhetoric of the Left?
We, secondly, should have Equal Opportunity Agenda items that fight for accountability and the rule of law. It's not necessarily about the regulation of the market; it's about keeping people accountable within the market when market failures and negative externalities occur. Christopher Cox, the chairman of the SEC [not the football conference :-)], has a good op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal:
When the Securities and Exchange Commission was created in 1934, its purpose was to serve as an independent regulator of the unbridled profit-seeking activity of self-interested individuals and firms in the securities markets. It was not intended to supplant the market or directly participate in it. Instead, it marked a deliberate effort to clearly define and separate the role of the national government, on the one hand, and the capital markets, on the other.
(Unfortunately, the Bush Administration thought that the Treasury Department can have much more direct participation in the free market than should be allowable.) Government's job is not to participate in the market; it's job is to provide everybody the equal opportunity to participate and make people accountable when they try to game the system. Accountability is also important with an issue like education. President Bush started down the right path with the principles of teacher accountability with No Child Left Behind, but went too far when he thought that test scores wold be the best and only way to measure performance.
The rule of law is just as important because beyond the purpose of any law, legislators and citizens should evaluate whether or not new laws can be effectively enforced. The selection of Supreme Court justices that actually respect the rule of law, and not an overly flexible interpretation of the law, can be argued under that pervue. Immigration is another one of those issues where the rule of law comes up. Instead of having this internal debate between the kick 'em out/build a fence folks and the CIRA defenders, a more nuianced discussion should occur that clearly defines "legal worker status" and "legal resident status." The rule of law, especially in immigration, should give everybody the equal opportunity (but not special opportunities) to enter and succeed in this country.
Evolving our steadfast support for smaller government to "smarter government" should be the third part of our Equal Opportunity Agenda. The line that Barack Obama used throughout the debates was that he wanted to use a scalpel instead of a hatchet when it comes to our federal budget. Personally, I would like to use a tactical nuke to take care of some parts of the budget, but we all have to come to the realization that much of bureacracy is here to stay. First, we should promote transparency initiatives at all levels of government (federal, state and local) to see where we can make government "smarter." Second, we need to develop some sort of system that tracks, in a detailed fashion, the "performance" of government agencies so that we can know what works and what doesn't.
Everybody is against big government. But not everybody is convinced that money isn't the fix-all of society's problems. So while we need to get rid of agencies and programs that don't work, Republicans also need to look at which agencies can be reformed so that they make better use of the funds given to them. "Smarter government" includes promoting a health tax credit that can benefit the poor and lower middle class instead of a employer health deduction that currently benefits the rich and upper middle class; it includes promoting more crime prevention programs as much as crime enforcement programs that can attack both the supply and demand of crime at state and local levels; and it includes promoting socioeconomic affirmative action at institutions of higher education rather than race-based affirmative action. Bigger government doesn't provide equal opportunity; it's smaller and smarter government that can provide society an equal playing field. By using this theme, we don't have to go to the level of David Brooks and Bill Kristol and just accept the status quo government bureacracry.
Patrick has already thoroughly shown, in his Case Against Blogs and Twitter, what proper use and development of Web 2.0 tools for political purposes are. It's not about building lists; it's about building communities.
It's hard to build active political communities (in the netroots and grassroots) around the principles of freedom, accountability, the rule of law and smarter government. But asking folks how they feel government can provide "equal opportunity" could give Republicans a chance to use online tools to connect with their constituents. Aaron Marks properly points out that it's all about peer production, and involving those who are active and inactive in the Republican Party means asking them what "equal opportunity" means to them. Asking people why they're a Republican, and building a site like Republican for a Reason, doesn't cut it.
If you give voters a real opportunity to voice their ideas on what defines Equal Opportunity, that could give the fodder for Republicans to build real communities around policy: combining the grassroots with the netroots. Web 2.0 tools and the theme of Equal Opportunity can provide Republicans a chance to have a frank and open conversation about our principles and our platform with their constituents about government's proper role in society.
Why the Equal Opportunity Agenda Could Work
First, the theme of equal opportunity is easily transferable to all levels of government. We should have Agendas of Equal Opportunity in all 50 states. Republcan governors and state legislators should outline similar items (whether they're in the majority or minority).This can conitrbute to any effort that can help state and local parties build a strong bench of candidates and incumbents. As Soren rightfully points out, we should "pick our fights and move to the states" as many state governments are going through budget crises that could give conservatives opportunities to present real conservative reforms. Karl Rove emphasizes this in today's Wall Street Journal:
There must be a special focus on state legislative races. Legislators elected in 2009 and 2010 will redistrict Congress and themselves in 2011. Today, there are 25 state Senates where either party's majority is smaller than 10 seats and 21 state Houses where the majority is less than 20 seats. In eight states, legislative control is divided, with one party controlling the Senate and the other the House. State parties and congressional delegations have a vital stake in recruiting, training and funding effective legislative campaigns over the next two years.
Second, the Agenda of Equal Opportunity can effectively fight the race-based/class-based agenda of the Left while also reaching out to minorities, Reagan Democrats and Independents. As I've pointed out before, there are promises and perils to ethnic minority outreach programs. We have to come up with agenda items that are appealing to minorites but don't pander to their identity. A theme of equal opportunity can help Republicans go into African American churches, Asian American small businesses, Hispanic American community meetings, etc. and talk about the freedom to worship, accountability in education, and common sense immigration reform. Similarly, the equal opportunity message is exaclty what we need to counter the equal outcome message with blue collar voters when defending free trade, attacking card check, and promoting pro-growth tax policy.
Third, the Agenda of Equal Opportunity can unite different wings of the party while allowing room for lively debate. As I said above, using the theme of equal opportunity can engage constituents in a lively policy debate with Republican leaders; the merging of the netroots and grassroots under the umbrella of Equal Opportunity can give social conservatives and fiscal conservatives a chance to discuss policy in a productive fashion. But an Agenda of Equal Opportunity can also unite the "Oogedy Boogedy's and Elitists," a subject that Matt Miller pointed out this morning:
There are two groups in the Republican Party today, fundamentally at odds with each other. The first group is generally more conservative, especially socially, and they believe that a huge chunk of the Republican Party, the Republican establishment, the Republican commentariat, etc, have been infected with a beltway/blue state elitism, that causes them to A.) Dilute their conservatism, and B.) Act as co-conspirators in the relentless liberal assault on blue-collar Republicans (witness the treatment of Palin, Huckabee, Fred Thompson, Joe the Plumber, etc). The second group consists of this other chunk of the party: these folks see themselves as noble guardians of reason, logic, merit and ideas, who have the solemn obligation to stand against the forces of unreason, illogic, affirmative action, and lazy-class appeal. They’re prone to using precious phrases like “oogedy boogedy” to describe the other half of the party. Palin is the new heroine of the former group, while the latter group still searches for it’s gladiator.
If the party can be divided into these two categories (which I don't necessarily agree with), the Agenda of Equal Opportunity can give "oogedy boogedy's" the opportunity to reaffirm principles while the elitists use it to be intellectually free to attempt promotion of new solutions.
Last, and certainly not least, the Agenda of Equal Opportunity is a perfect way to reach young voters, especially young families. On one side, young voters concerned with long term issues like health care, social security, the national debt, the environment, long term economic growth, education, etc. can connect with a message that says everybody deserves an equal opportunity to succeed, but not an equal outcome of success, in America. Especially with young families that have children or are thinking about having children, the equal opportunity theme is a way Republicans can connect with them by asking what kind of America they want to see in 20 years.
So if I were a Republican candidate for elected office, how would I use an Agenda of Equal Opportunity to speak to Average Joe voters?
- "It's not about what government can tax, spend and create. It's about how government can contribute to promoting equal opportunity for you. It's not government's job to promise success. It's government's job to give everyone the equal opportunity to succeed. It's not government's job to make history. It's government's job to help people on Main Street make history."
- "Politicians have to be honest with you. In a free market society, in a democracy, there are winners and losers. We can't promise that your start-up business will grow. We can't promise that you'll keep your job forever. We can't promise that you'll become a millionaire. But if you work hard and play by the rules, we can promise that we won't get in your way if you want to start a business. We can promise you the equal opportunity to get a job. And government can promise you accountability and transparency of the tax dollars you give us."
- "Too often, politicians focus on what they can do to make things better over the next two years, four years or six years, without regard to what happens over the next two, four or six decades. It's time to take on the long term problems that will affect our country's ability to prosper. It's time to start thinking about tomorrow, rather than today, to make sure that the same opportunities that exist today will also exist tomorrow."
Obviously, this theme doesn't touch on all issues. But it's a start. Thoughts?