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The Republican Party's Road Back to Victory

The Republican Party's Road Back to Victory

By Peter Wehner - May 10, 2013

President Obama’s second term is off to a rocky start, but that should not obscure for Republicans the fact that their party is facing many well-documented problems. They include everything from campaign mechanics and overly long presidential primaries to changing demographics and mediocre candidates. But there’s something more fundamental at play. The GOP doesn’t have a compelling, or even a particularly identifiable, governing vision. That may be sufficient for a congressional party committed to blocking President Obama’s agenda, but it’s not sufficient for a national party that wants to once again win presidential elections.

So what should the Republican Party’s governing vision, its “narrative,” be? Answer: Become the party of reform and modernization.

The case for reform goes something like this: Our most important public institutions and programs -- everything from our entitlement system to our tax code and schools to our immigration system and energy policy – were designed for the conditions of the last century. They need to be upgraded to meet the challenges of this century.

The point isn’t to improve these programs for their own sake; it’s that these programs and institutions were designed to help people live better and more fulfilled lives. So when they become dysfunctional or unsustainable, it has damaging human consequences, especially on the middle- and lower-class.

If Republican leaders were to fully embrace a conservative reform agenda, it would address pressing national needs. It would position the GOP as forward looking, contemporary, and have appeal to swing voters. It would demonstrate a commitment to a brand of conservatism that is practical rather than narrowly ideological. And it contrasts well with today’s reactionary liberalism, by which I mean liberalism that opposes virtually every effort to reform institutions and programs that are sclerotic, outdated, and ineffective.

There are five obvious areas for Republicans to focus on, beginning with entitlement reform – most especially Medicare, the main driver of our debt crisis. Medicare is an insurance program designed in the mid-1960s that simply cannot keep up with 21st century health care needs. It is a massively inefficient system in part because of its fundamentally flawed subsidy structure. The solution is to replace the current system of beneficiary enrollment with patient-centered, market-oriented reforms that allow for much more adaptation, efficiency and reward innovations – all things that will improve quality and reduce costs.

Republicans can point out that this approach has worked extremely well with prescription drugs, where costs are nearly 40 percent less than anticipated. The GOP should also champion reforms in the medical-liability system in order to curb frivolous lawsuits that drive up costs.

A second area Republicans should focus on is reforming our tax code, which is bewilderingly complicated, costs taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and billions of hours each year to solve, and inhibits economic growth. Our global competitors have modernized their tax code in ways that give them a significant competitive advantage over America. Our aim should be to replace the current tax code with one that encourages innovation and investment. The way to achieve those things is to broaden the base by closing loopholes and deductions and lowering and consolidating tax rates. The result will be significantly stronger economic growth and job creation.

Our immigration system, like Medicare, was designed nearly a half-century ago and is utterly disconnected from the needs of a modern economy. We’re doing a rotten job of everything from selection to assimilation. It’s long past time we move away from a bias from “family reunification” (which has been the organizing principle of our immigration policy for generations) to high skill workers. We need explicit civics and assimilation requirements. We should continue to use the most advanced technology to improve border security and biometric verification. And we should provide an attainable, if arduous, path to legal status and eventual citizenship.

Republicans should also focus more attention on legal rather than illegal immigration, both because it’s more important to our future success and because illegal immigration is at its lowest point since the early 1970s. (Net immigration from Mexico is below zero for the first time since the 1930s.)

America will not remain the world’s leading economy when our students, in international comparisons, come in 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math. These dismal performances are betraying our children and undermining our country. Perhaps the single most important step to put us on the path toward educational excellence is to de-monopolize education, much as we did the airline, trucking and telecommunications industries in years gone by. An education reform agenda should consist of expanding public charter schools and parental choice (as is being tried on a large scale in Indiana and Louisiana), make schools more accountable to parents, and attract and reward our best teachers through merit pay and changes in certification procedures. Republicans should focus on high academic standards and the content of education, which is given short shrift these days. And priority also needs to be given to transparency and high-quality research and data collection, the indispensable requirements for meaningful reform.

During the 2012 election Republicans said more about electrified fences and self-deportation than education. They should speak about it far more often than they do, including in the context of shaping character. Schools play a key role in cultural transmission and cohesion; Republicans should add their voices to this conversation.

We are in the midst of what Walter Russell Mead calls “the energy revolution of the 21st century,” with America’s combined recoverable natural-gas, oil, and coal endowment the largest on Earth. (The United States has more oil than Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran combined.) Yet the Obama administration has no interest in increasing U.S. oil production; in fact, the president and his former energy secretary have boasted they want to raise energy costs. This presents Republicans with a huge opening. Technologies like hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) and horizontal drilling make it possible for us to tap into our vast deposits of natural gas and shale oil. And the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries predicts that by 2035 oil shipments from the Middle East to North America “could almost be nonexistent.”

The GOP energy agenda should rest on the fact that America has more, not fewer, fossil fuel resources available to it than we ever thought imaginable – and this could be a geopolitical game-changer.

There are plenty of other topics that easily fall under the banner of reform, including higher education and worker training, Medicaid and food stamps, restoring welfare work requirements, ending corporate welfare and breaking up the big banks. The point is that Republicans have a golden opportunity to do what Democrats will not, since public trust in the federal government is at historic lows. Americans are looking for responsible change agents, and for the GOP to articulate a governing agenda, not just list its objections of liberalism.

“Of a sudden,” wrote Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.” The Republican Party’s challenge is to restore that reputation. Positioning the GOP as the champions of modern and responsive institutions is a mighty good way to do that. 

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Previously he worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

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