As we enter the election home stretch, the central issue remains war and peace, and it’s still Bush’s to lose. And if Karl Rove and the Bush brain trust allow Kerry and the Democrats to get away with the demagoguery of the Democratic convention message on war leadership, shame on the Republican Party.Charles Kesler makes a telling point in a recent issue of the Claremont Review of Books. He believes the polls suggest that, as Americans feel more secure and notice the war less, they regard President Bush less favorably. This was the Churchill syndrome following World War II. Perhaps, Kesler speculates, voters fear that this is not really war, but a long protracted police action, better fought now by airport screeners, international organizations, and intelligence czars than by the military. In that case, they may prefer a President who will declare victory or stalemate and bring the troops home, invoking the lessons of Vietnam—an ideal opportunity for a John Kerry, who has said that the war on terrorism is primarily a matter of law enforcement and intelligence.
This is plausible and possible to pull off by a duplicitous liberal/left that sees no good intentions in the Bush Doctrine or in much else that has happened in the conduct of the war, particularly at the front in Iraq. But since Vietnam, liberals have never been of one mind on foreign policy. In fact, they have been split at least three ways—from the few remaining Joe Lieberman hawks to the Woodrow Wilson/Carter/Clinton liberal internationalists to the Michael Moore kooks on the far left who see no good purpose for American power in the world. I don’t believe that Kerry can win unless he is allowed to have it all three ways, and Republicans should not let him get away with that.
Meanwhile, there are other key issues and themes that should get serious attention in the campaign, most of which can be winners for the Republicans. Some have already been highlighted by the Bush campaign; I fear that others may not get the emphasis they deserve:
· The “ownership society”—There is little doubt that this will be the central theme of domestic policy priorities for Bush’s second term. The primary elements should be built around individual ownership and control over the benefits packages of health care insurance and retirement, the former through universal Health Savings Accounts and the expansion of tax deductibility to individually purchased insurance and the latter through the transformation of Social Security with phased-in privatization and Personal Retirement Accounts.
· Tax policy—The priorities should be to make permanent the tax rate cuts of the first term as well as elimination of the estate tax, and to initiate bold new reforms based on a flat tax system to completely replace the current system. This should be part and parcel of any longer term ownership society theme.
· Trade—There should be aggressive follow up on the opening offered by The World Trade Organization’s agreement on elimination of agricultural export subsidies by taking the lead in eliminating them in the U. S. This will result in allowing poor countries to participate in the global markets and pursue their own comparative advantages, a stroke for self-interest as well as compassion.
· The courts and the culture—The next four years will offer the opportunity for as many as three Supreme Court appointments, and the President should make it clear in no uncertain terms that any such appointments will emphasize strict constructionism over creativity from the bench and the restoration of representative democracy to the resolution of conflicts in matters involving society’s deeply held beliefs and values. He should further make it clear that Senate obstruction of appointments and the further perversion of the Constitutional prerogative of advise and consent will not be tolerated.
· Education—To the extent that the Federal government has a role to play in public education, the No Child Left Behind Act was a start in sending the message that we are serious about accountability and standards. The message should now be taken to the next level with aggressive support for breaking up the education delivery system monopoly with comprehensive school choice, public or private, beginning with an immediate exit option for children in NCLB non-performing schools and the voucherizing of all Title I funding. This will help advance what is already becoming the civil rights revolution of the 21st century at the state and local level.
· Spending and the size of government—It’s pretty simple here: return to the Reagan motto of “the government is too big and spends too much”, acknowledge the first term acquiescence to the worst impulses of the discretionary spending excesses, and commit to do better, with vetoes.
· Compassionate conservatism—Liberals attempt to hijack the “values” issue by couching them in terms of government policy, because they emphasize the moral obligations of society (as delivered by government) over those of the individual. Bush should return to his “compassionate conservatism” theme of 2000 and counter this by putting his faith-based initiatives back on the front burner, but this time by establishing a delivery system for social services through vouchers to the users rather than by grants to the providers.
· Immigration—Sensitivity to alienating parts of the Hispanic voting base aside, the country should enforce our current immigration laws, reject amnesty, exact penalties for hiring illegal immigrants, and return to policies that assign top priority to the assimilation of legal immigrants into the American mainstream.
· Liberation of broadband—The President should announce loudly and clearly that the Internet should be freed from the antiquated, monopoly driven rules of the last century by deregulating all broadband links to homes and offices and dissolving all artificial distinctions between local and long distance communications as well as voice and data, thereby releasing the wealth-creation power of our entrepreneurs.
· Tort reform—Transformation to an ownership society cannot succeed without serious Federal lawsuit reform and relief from the “tort tax” on small business, which is being blocked by the obstructionists in the Senate. As the President has said, “You can’t be pro-small business and pro-trial lawyer at the same time.”
The Republican Party began to achieve governing ascendancy in 1994 as the post-Cold War party of essentially conservative ideas juxtaposed to a party devoid of them, and ideas always trump arguments about “competency”. Their key to victory lies in spending the next two months reasserting that claim.