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Conservatives approach the New Year
By W. James Antle III
It is customary for the conclusion of each year to be marked by predictions about what is in store for the New Year. Given the volatility of politics during the last decade, observers should be reluctant to play the role of political Nostradamus.
The year 2001 ends with George W. Bush enjoying unprecedented approval ratings and leading an apparently successful anti-terrorism campaign. Yet Republicans have lost governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia, states won by the GOP since 1993, and a close mayoral election in Houston. The only significant Republican victory was Michael Bloomberg's stunning upset in the race for mayor of New York City, hardly a major boost for the right given the billionaire's long-standing liberal sympathies.
Notwithstanding President Bush's razor-thin 2000 presidential victory and his ability to unite a great majority of Americans behind him following the terrorist massacres of September 11, American conservatives have to some extent suffered the plight of the right throughout the Western world. As the advocates of democratic socialism we now commonly call left-liberals have accepted in some degree the market economy, they now effectively present themselves as more compassionate custodians of capitalism. Leaders like Tony Blair, Jean Chretien and Bill Clinton do not preach unadulterated socialism and are willing to allow the private sector to deliver services during some instances of public sector failure.
By resisting the right's characterization of them (and to a large extent adopting their policies), the left has revived its political fortunes only a few short years after conservative commentators were triumphantly writing their opponents' obituaries. So we see Democrats effectively resisting Republican calls for further tax-rate cuts even as such reductions are more economically justified with each passing quarter (in the last quarter, the economy contracted at a 1.3 percent annual rate). Democrats still criticize the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s and warn that President Bush's tax policy will similarly cause deficits and other economic unpleasantness, yet none of them dare call for returning to pre-Reagan tax rates.
Indeed, our present situation with a majority of the federal tax burden being paid by a minority of taxpayers empowers the left. Any meaningful tax reduction with any prospect of improving investment returns or increasing incentives for productive economic behavior can easily be presented as a "tax break for the wealthy." Consider that one-third of the incomes taxes that prop up the federal welfare state are supplied by the top 1 percent of taxpayers. Though a dangerous situation for both the economy and the rule of law, a country in which the majority can vote itself benefits paid for by the wealth of the minority is a boon for statism.
Before the Reagan administration, middle and working-class families were constantly pushed into higher tax brackets by inflation, a form of bracket creep that resulted in unlegislated tax increases. Marginal tax rates were well above today's top statutory rate of 39.6 percent. Today, tax rates are lower (thanks mainly to conservative policies) and "real income bracket creep" is a less obvious phenomenon - being penalized for progress by having reasonable gains in income push your family into a higher tax bracket is economically counterproductive, but not as painful as higher taxes accompanying stagnant or declining real income. This makes tax rate cuts seem less urgent and the Democratic argument for "fairer" targeted tax cuts to benefit "working families" seem more reasonable.
Liberals governments continue to expand the role of the state, but do so more incrementally, with promises of efficiency and the retention of certain key Reaganite, Thatcherite and even Mulroneyite reforms inherited from conservative predecessors. The left claims less the ability to manage the economy than to promote harmony amidst diversity and use government edicts to solve a variety of national problems, ranging from the environment to anything dangerous to "the children."
Although more successful than their contemporaries in Canada and Great Britain, US conservatives in the Republican Party have been ill-equipped to deal with neo-liberal political innovations. Republicans have been unable to cope with Democrats presenting themselves as guardians of the surplus and are generally impotent in the face of arguments that equate defending traditional morality with attacking pluralism. On issues that some commentators summarize as the "national question," ranging from sovereignty to immigration policy, even conservative Republicans are often hesitant to assert themselves.
It should thus come as little surprise that the Constitution is seldom consulted when new expansions of federal power are considered, as it has been hijacked by ideologues offended by Christmas trees. If the revival of patriotism and other trends hospitable to traditionalists following September 11 presents opportunities for conservatives, few have shown any indication they know how to take them.
This doesn't mean that 2002 spells doom for Republicans. A few isolated off-year elections may not be representative of any meaningful national trend. During the 1990s, we saw the Republicans' 12-year lock on the presidency broken in one election cycle, followed by the end of the Democrats' 40-year domination of the House of Representatives in the very next election and then saw a Democratic president win a second term for the first time since 1936 and a Republican Congress reelected for the first time since 1928 in the same election cycle.
Who in 1995 would have predicted that on the eve of 2002, Newt Gingrich would no longer be in Congress but Strom Thurmond would, or that Donald Rumsfeld would hold a high government position but Al Gore wouldn't?
Syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock recently rattled off the accomplishments of outgoing New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani: a 57 percent drop in crime, a 65 percent reduction in the homicide rate, a 53.4 percent decrease in public-assistance rolls and the abolition of a 20 percent minority set-aside program. Municipal employment fell 17.2 percent overall even though 12 percent more police officers and 12.8 percent more teachers were hired. City-owned apartments were cut by 70 percent and many city assets were privatized. Giuliani cut or abolished 23 taxes, including a 21 percent cut in the city income tax. He held annual budget increases to 2.9 percent while his fiscal 1995 budget and fiscal 2002 forecast actually decrease nominal spending.
These accomplishments are worth repeating not simply as another tribute to Rudy. They are a testimony to the effectiveness of conservative ideas when promoted by officials willing to implement them. Giuliani governed a liberal city where Democrats outnumbered Republicans 5 to 1 among registered voters and 45 to 6 on the city council. And he was no flaming right-winger; consider that everything Murdock mentions was accomplished by someone frequently criticized by conservatives for being too liberal, a mayor elected with the support of New York's Liberal Party just like the last Republican mayor before him, John Lindsay.
Tempting though it may be to make predictions, politics in recent years has been stubbornly unpredictable. Perhaps a more productive enterprise would be to seek opportunities and seize them.
W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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