Reform on the right

Robert Novak
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Posted: Nov 11, 2004 12:00 AM

 WASHINGTON -- The untold story from last week's Republican victory was the ineffectiveness of the left's attacks on right-wing reform. Democrats surprisingly did not launch a national campaign against partial privatization of Social Security. They did unlimber heavy artillery against radical changes in federal taxation but ended up shooting duds.

 This failure was dramatized by Senate elections in the very red states of Oklahoma and South Carolina. Right up to Election Day, serious Democratic strategists saw an excellent chance to win in both states because the Republican candidates were uncompromising reformers and, therefore, stigmatized as loony rightists. Instead, former Rep. Tom Coburn in Oklahoma and Rep. Jim DeMint in South Carolina won easily.

 The same Democratic strategists who misread those Senate races are chortling that the re-elected George W. Bush blundered by pledging his political capital on radical reform. Even in his own administration, officials whisper that President Bush surely will step aside in the face of intractable opposition. These skeptics, however, are contradicted by the outcome of 2004.

 The Club for Growth, which in 2000 began supporting economic conservatives running for Congress, this year contributed to seven non-incumbent Republican candidates -- all in tightly contested races. Six were winners (in Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Louisiana and Florida). The only loser was beer baron Pete Coors in Colorado, a rookie candidate with much to learn. Five of the seven candidates were vigorous Social Security and tax reform advocates, the exceptions being John Thune in South Dakota (who concentrated on trashing Democratic Leader Tom Daschle) and Mel Martinez in Florida.

 Steve Moore, the feisty free market economist who is Club for Growth's president, concentrated on helping aggressive reformers Coburn and DeMint. Both had to wade through fierce Republican primary opposition and were not favorites of the GOP's Washington establishment. The Oklahoma Republican power structure was aligned against Coburn, as was the House Republican leadership that did not remember him fondly from his congressional days. Speaker Dennis Hastert publicly dismissed Coburn as a probable loser in the same category as Alan Keyes, who finished 43 percentage points behind in Illinois.

 Rep. Brad Carson, Coburn's supposedly moderate Democratic opponent, blistered the Republican in debates for wanting to "privatize" Social Security. But in Oklahoma as elsewhere, the major thrust by Democrats assailed Coburn for considering a 23 percent national sales tax (part of a nationally coordinated mailing the last week of the campaign). The outcome: Coburn won by the landslide proportion of 12 percentage points.

 In South Carolina, DeMint was as pure a free market candidate as possible in winning a seat held for 42 years by arch-protectionist Democrat Ernest F. Hollings. A free trader, DeMint fought off protectionist assaults, first in the primary and later in the general election by State Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum. But Tenenbaum, a popular Democrat in this prototypical red state, campaigned hard against the 23 percent sales tax and excited her party's national strategists. The outcome: DeMint won by the landslide proportion of 10 percentage points.

 The anti-sales-tax argument was pressed against Republicans all over the country, particularly State House Republican Leader Cathy McMorris in the state of Washington and former district judges Louis Gohmert and Ted Poe, running against redistricted incumbent Democrats in Texas. All were endorsed by the Club for Growth, and all won in landslides.

 DeMint in South Carolina alarmed supporters temporarily by defending the 23 percent sales tax and failing to make clear that the reform would totally repeal the income tax. In fact, the plan is a work in progress with the possibility that the national sales tax could be reduced to as low as 13 percent or 10 percent by coupling it with a value-added tax in place of the corporate income tax.

 Meanwhile, it was a bad election day for EMILY's list, which funds pro-choice female candidates. The organization's star candidates for the Senate, Tenenbaum in South Carolina and former State Education Commissioner Betty Castor in Florida, lost winnable races. Since its founding, the Club for Growth now has defeated EMILY's list, 10 to 3, in head-to-head contests. Economic freedom trumps abortion rights to the president's advantage as he pursues his new agenda.