February 8, 2005
A Club Too Exclusive

By Debra Saunders

The Republican Party rules the White House, as well as a majority in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, which means the party is flying so high that only Republicans can muck it up.

Enter the Club for Growth, a group of supply-side economists on a jihad to bury Republicans they don't deem to be pure enough. Given a choice between half a loaf and none, the club says: none.

So last week, the club's new president Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., announced a campaign to send a "gentle message" to three Republicans -- Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Mich., and Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y. -- by airing ads in their districts telling voters to urge their lawmaker to support private savings accounts as part of a Social Security reform package.

Who cares if no one knows what will be in the Social Security reform package suggested by President Bush in concept but with no details? Not the club.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who supports the concept of investment accounts, had the right approach when he told the Los Angeles Times that until a solid plan is in place, "you've got a lot of people debating empty boxes." Which makes the club, as self-appointed enforcer for the GOP, the enforcer of support for empty boxes.

On Friday, Toomey told Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball," "One of the things the Club for Growth does very well is that it sometimes instills some political courage where it is needed on Capitol Hill."

Au contraire, only cowardice or stupidity could prompt a member to sign onto a reform package that doesn't exist.

"I don't see any downside," said club Executive Director David Keating. The ads aren't "critical" of the three Repubs -- not as critical as past club campaigns, which really hammered wayward Repubs. This is a nice way of getting their attention and drawing them to the light.

But what if the Bush plan isn't fiscally sound -- which is supposed to be important to the club? Does it then run ads taking back the old ads?

There's also a California Club for Growth. A Club for Growth in California, where John Kerry beat George W. Bush by 10 points and every statewide elected official is a Democrat -- except for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Next, they'll try to grow wheat in a sunless room.

Former Assemblyman Tony Strickland, who heads the California branch, said his group may well go after any Republican who votes for tax increases. "We will hold legislators accountable if they raises taxes," he explained.

You ignore the math, I countered, citing the need to win two-thirds of the votes in the Assembly and Senate, which are heavily Democratic. No, Strickland responded, the last three budgets had no broad tax increase -- even when there was a Democratic governor. True, I note, but those were not balanced budgets, they were borrow-big budgets.

"Here's what frustrates me," said state GOP Vice Chairman Jim Hartman. "I actually supported Ronald Reagan for president in 1976 against Gerald Ford. I consider myself a mainstream conservative Republican, but I'm also a Republican who can look at election results and recognize the realities in this state and what it takes to get elected in this state." Hartman opposes any effort to go after moderate Republicans, or Republicans who cut deals.

The club's Keating is a Reaganite, too.

"If there's anything that Republicans agree on, if there's a common thread, it's Reaganite economic policies, pro-growth policies and fiscal responsibility," Keating continued. "If a Republican doesn't vote that way, I don't see anything wrong" with backing another Republican in a primary when a Repub goes wrong.

I know what's wrong with it. The club posts members of the House and Senate whom it deems to be RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) because they voted against the club on a particular bill.

By the club's own definition, Ronald Reagan could be a RINO. As governor, Reagan raised taxes. And you know what: When he did, he was a better lawmaker than the California GOP purists who kept their no tax-hike pledge, but without cutting spending. They were so pure as they borrowed the state into oblivion.

I've known David Keating for years. I respect him tremendously and I agree with him on private savings account. But what the club is doing with this latest campaign shows what is wrong with politics theses days. This campaign may not use critical language, but its underlying message is that lawmakers shouldn't sweat the details, shouldn't deal with the other side, they don't even have to think.

To be a good Republican, in the eyes of the Club for Growth, is to take a stand and cleave to it, even if it means borrowing instead of cutting or, as far as we know, supporting bad Social Security reform.

2005 Creators Syndicate

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Debra J. Saunders
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