Best move for the GOP: Embrace the center

The middle gives the Republican Party the best hope of curbing Democratic excess.

Emboldened by their lock on Congress and the White House, Democrats are pursuing an ambitious agenda that is making Republicans crave a resurgence.

Many party faithful want to retrench to basic principles (complete with10-point “purity tests”), purge the traitors, and await “our turn” in the next election. While voters may punish Democratic overreaching, by then some key principles for which the Republican Party stands, such as limited government, may have suffered an irrevocable blow. A better strategy would be to build a big tent and embrace the center.

The reason for this is a basic asymmetry at the heart of politics: Large entitlement programs, with millions of voters as beneficiaries, are drastically easier to enact than to dismantle, regardless of the party in power. Thus, in the long run, advocates of limited government should prefer to have Washington divided, or at least run by centrists, rather than alternating tenures of ideological power.

History supports this strategy. Democratic success in congressional elections has required every Republican president since Coolidge to deal with Democratic congressional majorities for at least part of his term, while six Democratic presidents during that time have governed with a Democratic Congress.

Even when Republicans are in power, their record of repealing major entitlements falls short of their stated goals. Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare have continued their secular expansion during GOP rule no less than during Democratic rule. In fact, the budget increases of Clinton’s eight years of mostly divided government seem quaintly small next to the massive expansion during Bush’s mostly GOP rule. And they’re downright dwarfed by the gargantuan growth under Obama’s Democratic dominance.

Today, entitlement spending is more than 50 percent of the federal budget and rising rapidly as the population ages. Once the architecture is in place, such programs inevitably expand, with subsequent reform proposals being modest rather than radical. Is there any doubt that universal healthcare, if enacted, will be a similar growth story once millions of Americans start receiving care at someone else’s expense?

Since the demonstrated – in contrast to professed – ability of politicians of either party to eliminate major entitlement programs is basically nonexistent, the best strategy for the GOP is to reduce the odds that such programs are enacted in the first place. For that, the GOP must minimize the likelihood of swings that create Democratic supermajorities, which enacted Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in the 1930s and 1960s and which are poised to enact healthcare overhaul now.

The best way forward for the GOP is through the electoral center, by embracing a big-tent mind-set to appeal to a broader base of voters.

One starting point is to welcome – with open arms, not as second-class citizens – moderate Republicans, especially those whose views on immigration, abortion, and other “wedge” issues are more in tune with voters in certain areas. There is little reason to expect that the same type of Republican that wins in Mississippi will win in Maine. If anything, demographic and redistricting changes are poised to accentuate this need in future years.

The alternating currents of Democratic revolution and Republican counterrevolution have not worked to advance the core GOP principle of limited government. Republicans need to admit that even if each party had rotating four-year periods of absolute rule, Democrats would put in place far bigger and longer-lasting spending programs than Republicans could repeal during their turn.

A better GOP strategy would be to force the parties toward the middle and seek to prevent the introduction of major entitlements that will never realistically be repealed. In other words, gridlock.

Igor Kirman is a partner at the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.


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