All public policy is founded on an underlying philosophy about humanity and the world. Some call it a "worldview," but whatever it is called, everything government does (or does not do) derives from a philosophical foundation on which it is constructed.
While the usual suspects have criticized the Republican's "A Pledge to America" document, I find it a refreshing reminder of the founding philosophy that "brought forth on this continent a new nation," in Lincoln's words, 234 years ago.
The Republicans might have chosen a word other than "pledge." They could have selected "promise" (a declaration that something will or will not be done), or "covenant" (an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified), or even "assurance" (a positive declaration intended to give confidence), but they chose "pledge" (a solemn promise or agreement to do or refrain from doing something). Pledge is best, because "solemn" is the most serious of words.
Not to nitpick, but something is missing from the document. The pledge speaks of what Republicans will and won't do should they regain power and how they will cut this and repeal that, but what about us: the unelected who voted them into office? What's our role?
The pledge speaks of having a "responsible, fact-based conversation with the American people about the scale of the fiscal challenges we face, and the urgent action that is required to deal with them." OK, but will this be a one-way conversation, or will we be told what is expected of us? If the people are to have a minimal role in the restructuring of government, if this is just an anti-government agenda, the pledge will not work.
The first sentence of that conversation should be "we can't go on like this." Too many Americans have been riding the gravy train called "entitlement" for too long and it is about to derail. Republicans should make weaning them from dependence on government a patriotic duty and the essence of liberty. Focus on those who have overcome poverty and let them serve as examples of what others can do.
Let's talk about individuals demonstrating more responsibility for their lives and ensuring their own retirement, with Social Security returning to the insurance program it was originally designed to be: a safety net, not a hammock. Get serious about reforming Social Security and Medicare so that younger workers can save and invest their own money and have it with interest and dividends when they need it. Older workers and retirees would continue on the current system.
Specifics on reforming Social Security and Medicare were left out of the pledge because Republicans know Democrats aren't serious about taming these twin monsters. Democrats would rather use these issues to demonize the GOP than offer practical solutions to amend them.
Since the New Deal, there has been an unhealthy relationship between government and the people that has harmed both. But like illegal drugs, there would be little supply if the demand were not high. The idea that people are incapable of taking care of themselves and their immediate families would have been foreign to our Founding Fathers. What too many lack is not resources, but motivation. Remind politicians of the stories from our past and present about people who overcame obstacles, start teaching these stories to the kids in our schools.
Perhaps no one in modern times articulated the conservative philosophy about government and its rightful place better than Ronald Reagan, who said in a 1964 speech endorsing GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater: "This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
Philosophy is easier to express than to apply. Republicans, should they win back Congress this year and the White House in 2012, will face enormous opposition from entrenched interests that will test more than the strength of their philosophy. It will test the strength of their character.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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