Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Where next?

From Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ), via The Volokh Conspiracy, comes an agenda for Republicans in the wake of the '08 elections:

I suggest that we return to first principles. At the top of that list has to be a recommitment to limited government. After eight years of profligate spending and soaring deficits, voters can be forgiven for not knowing that limited government has long been the first article of faith for Republicans.

Of course, it's not the level of spending that gets the most attention; it's the manner in which the spending is allocated. The proliferation of earmarks is largely a product of the Gingrich-DeLay years, and it's no surprise that some of the most ardent practitioners were earmarked by the voters for retirement yesterday. Few Americans will take seriously Republican speeches on limited government if we Republicans can't wean ourselves from this insidious practice. But if we can go clean, it will offer a stark contrast to the Democrats, who, after two years in training, already have their own earmark favor factory running at full tilt.

Second, we need to recommit to our belief in economic freedom. Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" may be on the discount rack this year, but the free market is still the most efficient means to allocate capital and human resources in an economy, and Americans know it. Now that we've inserted government deeply into the private sector by bailing out banks and businesses, the temptation will be for government to overstay its welcome and force the distribution of resources to serve political ends. Substituting political for economic incentives is not the recipe for economic recovery. . . .

There are, of course, other pillars of the Republican standard -- strong national defense, support for traditional values and the Second Amendment -- but these are not areas where voters question Republican bona fides. In any event, as we have seen over the past several months, economic woes tend to subsume other concerns. We shouldn't complain. We can now play our strongest hand.

To make the obvious pun, Flake's no flake; that was a good message. A few problems, though:

The first problem that I spot with this is that earmarks are essentially irrelevant numbers-wise. Regardless of the moral high ground of being anti-pork, it's hard to get excited when one of the main pillars of a platform is "just" $17 billion, 2% of the nation's discretionary spending. Eliminating all of them would just barely keep the budget flat for one year. Without a better reason to make this an issue, the GOP should just leave it alone - all the more so since 2000-2006 saw so much GOP earmarking that their credibility is ruined on the issue. It seems like an issue that should only be pursued once the GOP wins back a majority - then an anti-earmark stance will actually carry some weight. Don't put the horse before the carrot, so to speak.

Second problem: when a conservative talks about free-market principles, voters will think "deregulation." And when they think of deregulation, they will connect it rightly or wrongly to the financial crisis. That's not a platform anyone can win on.

Third problem: by putting the Second Amendment right next to "strong national defense," Flake plays right into a fundamental paradox of the right wing that many voters see: that while conservatism is about limited government, conservatives often push for a stronger government and the curtailment of absolute freedom in the interest of security. When I say "curtailment of absolute freedom," I don't mean that Big Brother is now watching you and a wrong word will get you carted off to prison; I mean that the right wing will support legislation establishing the potential for a Big Brother system in times of conflict. Yes, the economy is important, perhaps more so than anything else from a strictly political standpoint. But if the Republican Party wants to reestablish credibility, it needs to start by explaining the seeming contradictions in its platform, and this is perhaps the biggest of them all. After we've established that the platform is consistent, THEN we can move on to consistently living up to it.

Update: On Volokh Conspiracy, this comment by Richard Aubrey caught my eye:
The earmarks are the key, the bribe, to get legislators to vote the required way, on the big things. A key doesn't weigh much, but heavy doors can be unlocked.

I hadn't thought of this at all. By using earmarks, the argument goes, Congressmen are able to break the political process and so get much more damaging legislation passed. I'd like to see some examples of this, but there's the potential to make earmarks a significant issue here. 'Course, the fact that this is the first I've heard of this line of thought shows how poorly anti-porkers are selling it...

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