Republicans should not sleep well at night. The party has achieved comfortable majority status just when it seems to have lost its animating vision. And when parties exist merely to maintain themselves in power, corruption soon follows.
There may well be less than meets the eye in the Jack Abramoff scandal -- time will tell. But the perception of corruption can be devastating. Newt Gingrich's 1994 triumph was propelled in no small measure by the perception of Democratic corruption -- the House bank scandal, the Rostenkowski indictment, Speaker Jim Wright's forced resignation, Tony Coehlo's junk bond deal. There were other matters (HillaryCare, gays in the military), but clean government was arguably a key factor.
If Republicans gaze north of the border to Canada, they see another entrenched majority that was just ousted. Thanks in part to a kickback scandal involving Liberal politicians in Quebec, the Conservatives achieved victory for the first time in 12 years. This, in a country where Ted Kennedy would be a centrist.
So, yes, Republicans had better get on the reform bandwagon. By all means end the unsavory practice of accepting lavish trips and sports tickets from lobbyists. More substantively, a move to eliminate earmarking -- if it reduces government bloat -- is all to the good.
But more than scandal should trouble Republican sleep. They can stamp out the scandal flames on their skirts but still be crushed by the collapsing roof if they don't take care of the deeper problem. That deeper problem is their raison d'etre.
In 1994, the Republican majority passed welfare reform, arguably the most successful domestic initiative since the federal highway system. And, though they lost, they fought hard to balance the budget. Aside from tax reform, what were the Republican majority's domestic accomplishments during 2005? 2004? 2003? In 2002, retreating from the reformist agriculture bill of 1996, Congress passed and the president signed the largest federal agriculture bill in history. Ditto with education spending. The execrable 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill has saddled the nation with a new entitlement that will dwarf even the crushing liability of Social Security. According to the Government Accountability Office, the government's unfunded promises to retirees under Medicare will be $27.7 trillion over 75 years, with the new prescription drug benefit comprising $8.1 trillion of that obligation. By comparison, Social Security has an unfunded liability of $3.7 trillion over the same period. (Source: California Healthline) It is impossible to even speak of the $286.4 billion transportation bill without covering one's nose with a hankie. That piece of pork was approved by a vote of 412 to eight in the House and 91 to four in the Senate. (And they say there's no comity in Washington!)
To be sure, an enormous chasm divides Republicans from Democrats on national defense related issues, and this will remain an area of Republican strength. But the party is badly in need of a domestic agenda consistent with traditional conservative principles.
A few brief suggestions:
-- Assimilation. Republicans are divided on immigration. Wall Street and business interests need the cheap labor; but workers and border state residents bitterly resent the crime, job losses and disorder that illegal as well as legal immigrants trail in their wake. One solution all segments of the party will agree upon is a renewed commitment to assimilation as the norm for legal immigrants. Democrats want the United States to change to accommodate immigrants. The Republican policy should be just the opposite. Yes, we welcome immigration, but only for those who are willing to Americanize by learning English, renouncing their ancestral homes and pledging allegiance to this country.
-- Health Care Reform. The Democrats will not let this issue lie dormant much longer, and their reform will be big government cubed. Republicans must strike first with market-oriented reforms that encourage cost cutting and efficiency. Decoupling the tax deduction for medical expenses from employers and giving it directly to consumers is one such reform.
-- Smaller Government. Fred Barnes argues in his new book that smaller government is a pipe dream. Welfare reform looked that way too in 1992. So did a Republican Congress for that matter. Smaller government isn't just desirable, it may well be indispensable if America is not to slide into the sort of decline Europe is in already.