How To Transform American Politics

Posted: Jun 12, 2001 12:00 AM
"The beginning, not the end," House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said about the tax-cut bill President Bush signed last Thursday. But the beginning of what? Republicans last week loved lines like this one at the start of an Associated Press story: "Now and for years to come, every American who pays income taxes will benefit from the $1.35 trillion tax cut bill that reflects the major goals President Bush outlined during his campaign for the White House." That identification (Bush equals money in your pocket) is the GOP's best hope to begin a political upheaval as long-lasting as the one that transformed American politics in the 1930s. Back in 1933, amid economic cataclysm, big-city Democratic mayors running big budget deficits at first saw no choice but to lay off city employees and reduce services. The result: Voters chose Republican Fiorello La Guardia to be mayor. Similar shocks seemed likely in other large cities. Democratic city bosses across the country panicked. They needed money, and fast, to stay in office. State governments were often unwilling and sometimes unable to send funds. Enter Franklin Roosevelt and his program to pass out lots of government jobs with the goal of breaking the back of the Depression. The program was important, since unemployment had risen from 2 million in 1929 to 13 million (25 percent of the labor force) early in 1933. The need for action was real. But FDR could have created programs with incentives for businesses to hire more people and religious groups to expand their anti-poverty work. Instead, he made sure jobs were passed out by Democratic Party workers. They took credit for new schools, hospitals and roads. Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect became the Democratic theme. In Chicago, for example, Roosevelt gave Mayor Edward J. Kelly control of 200,000 U.S.-funded jobs in Illinois. Between 1933 and 1940, federal funds enabled Kelly to build an airport and many other projects, with the city paying only one penny for every dollar of job costs. Kelly gained re-election time after time and delivered Illinois to Roosevelt in presidential elections. FDR followed the same practice in other cities, and Democrats picked up votes that they held onto for decades. The bottom line: In 58 of the 68 years from 1933 through 2000, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. They controlled the White House in 40 of those years. That's an impressive testimony to the power of pork, especially since in the 68 years prior to the New Deal only two Democrats, Cleveland and Wilson, gained the presidency. The ultra-closeness of the last presidential election and the intrigues for control of the Senate show that control of American politics is now up for grabs once again. That's why the GOP has so much to gain if millions of voters see it as "the party that puts money in your pocket." That's why Republicans have to keep pushing tax cuts and promoting tax credits. It's harder to gain votes by cutting taxes than by passing out jobs: more people are helped, but the loyalty created isn't as great. That's why the GOP needs a clear message based on the preamble to the Constitution: "Provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare." Application: We'll spend money when we are obligated to provide, we'll create good conditions for voluntary effort when our job is to promote, and the result will be trillions in savings -- and more money in your pocket. Republicans need to be consistent in spelling out this governing philosophy. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the fourth-ranking House Republican, was right to tell colleagues that as refund checks go out to constituents, Republicans should "take every opportunity to remind them who is working to give them more of their own money back to meet their own priorities, not Washington's." If Republicans get into a bidding war with Democrats to see who can curry favor by expanding federal programs, they will be playing into the Democrats' strength. But if they stick to principle, they can break the current logjam and dominate American politics for a generation or more.