Lose One for the Gipper!

Politics and policy.
Feb. 27 1999 3:30 AM

Lose One for the Gipper!

Unsure of their future, Republicans revive the past.

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During the past few years, Republicans have dallied with social conservatism, libertarianism, and Gingrichian "revolutionary" conservatism. Now they are flirting with a new--or rather, an old--doctrine: nostalgism.

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The GOP has been trying to recapture Ronald Reagan's magic ever since Reagan went west in 1989. So it's not surprising that, at this moment of low ebb, Republicans are again evoking the Gipper. They have placed two early '80s Reagan issues at the heart of their platform: across-the-board tax cuts and a national missile defense.

The tax cut notion enthralls the party's top echelon, especially conservatives. Senate and House leaders pushed a 10 percent income tax cut as the centerpiece of their legislative plan until they abandoned the idea Monday. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott trekked to Macomb, Mich.,--the wellspring of Reagan Democrats--to flog the tax cut. Presidential candidate John Kasich is touting the income tax cut as the key to his campaign. Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, and Bob Smith are equally enthusiastic. Someone has also wound up the Jack Kemp doll, which declares the 10 percent proposal "timid and pitiful." Tax rates, Kemp says, should be cut back to Reagan levels. Dan Quayle, too, is dissatisfied with 10 percent off: He would slash rates 30 percent. (Even as I write this, a letter from the Heritage Foundation has been dropped on my desk: It says the tax cut idea "harkens back to the supply-side days of President Ronald Reagan. And not a minute too soon.")

The national missile defense has similarly claimed a top spot on the GOP's agenda. Conservatives began talking about the Star Wars revival last summer, when a blue-ribbon commission concluded that the United States was increasingly vulnerable to missile strikes by rogue states. The enthusiasm has mushroomed since North Korea shot a test missile over Japan. Lott calls missile defense "one of our most critical" legislative priorities. Bauer is making it one of his lead issues. (When I saw him speak at a conservative conference in January, the missile defense exhortation was his biggest applause line.) Quayle and Smith, too, are making missile defense a campaign priority. The Republican National Committee is obsessed with the topic, berating the Clinton administration weekly for failing to deploy a shield.

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David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

T he clinging to these two idées fixes is, in some ways, a Republican failure to accept victory. Reagan's tax cuts and tax reform were Republican triumphs. They lowered marginal rates from ludicrously high levels to more reasonable ones, and they spurred the economic expansion of the '80s (as well as the deficits of the '80s). Star Wars helped win the Cold War, convincing Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet Union could not compete.

This Reaganite fundamentalism is not ideology. It is faith: If he believed it, it must be so. But the problem with idées fixes is that they are fixed. Tax cuts and missile defense, circa 1999, are not wrong ideas. They are insignificant ones. Like the Democrats of the '80s who campaigned on the New Deal, '99 Republicans are refurbishing bygone notions for an age that doesn't want them. In 1981, Reagan cut taxes to spur consumption and revive a sickly economy. Today, Americans are consuming voraciously, and the economy could hardly be fitter. In 1983, Reagan funded Star Wars to intimidate the Soviet Union. Today, we don't need a national missile defense to defend against Russia. Nor is a missile shield a wise investment in the battle against rogues. Terrorists are more likely to park a bomb-filled truck on Pennsylvania Avenue than lob a missile. Better to spend the billions on intelligence and nonproliferation.

What must be especially frustrating to GOP strategists is Americans' indifference to this Reaganism. Republican dogma says you can never err by offering to cut taxes. But Americans have greeted the tax cut schemes with a shrug. Democrats have successfully (and accurately) painted the across-the-board tax cut proposal as regressive. Clinton has countered it with targeted, interest group tax cuts (child care, senior care, health care) offset by targeted tax increases (tobacco). Republicans would spend much of the surplus on a tax break. Clinton would spend it on Social Security, debt repayment, and Medicare. Only about 11 percent of Americans favor spending the surplus on a tax cut, while about 70 percent favor spending it on Social Security or debt repayment. Polls have found that when it comes to taxes, Americans trust Democrats (formerly "tax and spend Democrats") far more than Republicans, and Clinton far more than congressional Republicans. Clinton and the Democrats have won the tax issue so completely that congressional Republican leaders have now abandoned the 10 percent tax cut plan. Instead they are pushing marriage penalty tax relief. (The presidential candidates, of course, are still clutching to the across-the-board cuts.)

On missile defense, too, Clinton has outfoxed the GOP. He killed Star Wars in 1993, but the budget he introduced several weeks ago proposes $6.6 billion for missile defense research. (This is part of an enormous proposed increase in military spending.) The missile defense money has pulled the rug out from under Republicans, leaving them with the flimsiest of criticisms. The president has delayed the decision on whether to actually deploy a missile defense until June 2000. (The administration wants time to conduct R & D and renegotiate the ABM treaty with Russia. The treaty bans national missile defenses.) Republicans have been reduced to insisting that Clinton declare now that he will deploy a defense. In essence, the GOP argument is that we need to decide now, instead of 17 months from now, whether to deploy something that doesn't exist today, won't exist in 17 months, and probably won't exist until 2005. This is hardly enough to base a presidential campaign on.

There is another reason besides nostalgia why Republicans started talking about tax cuts and missile defense. Clinton has already co-opted Republicans on welfare, family values, the death penalty, crime, etc. Taxes and missile defense were among the few issues he hadn't stolen. But now he's the one who's got the tax plan Americans like. He's the one who has set aside billions for a missile defense that won't work. No wonder arch-Reaganaut Paul Weyrich is urging conservatives to give up on politics: They can't even out-Reagan Clinton.