Given the glacial pace of progress in Washington, it no longer seems possible to remake the country in one's ideological image in eight years. But 12 years is another matter. And that's why Republicans should begin now to get their ducks in a row for the 2016 election.
President Reagan reduced taxes dramatically upon taking office. He then entered into budget "deals" that led to tax increases. His legacy of reducing the size and reach of government was not cemented in his presidency, but after it—first by President George H.W. Bush, then by President Clinton, who enacted welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act and declared the "era of big government" to be over.
President Obama has studied the history of Ronald Reagan, and he wants to make that his history—from the other end of the ideological spectrum, of course. That explains the sharp ideological turn to the left in his second term—the avalanche of regulations he unleashed after the election, the tax increase, the bold talk on immigration, climate change, and guns.
Far more Americans still self-identify as conservatives than as liberals, but the gap has narrowed as President Obama has become less threatening to some with centrist inclinations. The various organizations of his permanent campaign—Organizing for Action, the Center for American Progress, etc.—continue to build grassroots support for his policies. And the bully pulpit of the presidency will continue to afford opportunities for him to make his case to the American people in a way his rivals cannot.
So what is a well-meaning but underfunded and disaffected opposition party to do? It needs to refine its ideas—adjust them to new realities where necessary—and find messengers who connect with the people.
For instance, the 11 million people who live in America illegally will not be "shipped back" to their home countries. They will not deport themselves. They work here. They live here. They have put down roots, moved their families here, gotten involved in schools and other organizations, and they are not leaving. Republican views on immigration need to take this into account. Republicans can go on friendly networks, such as Fox News, and declare otherwise all they want. But they are not helping the cause.
And Republicans must find that messenger. The Democrats have theirs in Hillary Clinton, who is enormously popular, even in traditionally red states such as Kentucky or Texas. If she chooses to seek the nomination, she will be hard to beat. If she is defeated, the candidate who beats her will be even tougher for Republicans to stop.
The Republicans can't yet identify their standard bearers. They know most of those who want the job, but they have yet to locate a candidate who can seize it.
And the stakes are enormous. Even now, with President Obama settling in for his second term and the Senate in Democratic hands, America remains a center-right country. Republicans control more statehouses and more legislatures, and they still run the House of Representatives, from which all money bills must originate.
But another eight years of President Obama's philosophies—the last four executed through the ideological heir who follows him to the Oval Office—and the country will change dramatically. The discipline to at least try to hold the line on spending will abate. The fortitude to maintain leadership in world affairs will disappear. George Will has suggested another eight years of this will leave us with a nation that amounts to "an assisted living home with an army." And not long after that, the army will become unaffordable.
So it's time. It's time Republicans relearn how to talk to Americans in terms they can understand. It's time they test their ideas in the marketplace. While I am personally a fan, enough with the all-Republican chat fests on Fox. Engage on the other networks. Write for the liberal press. Endure the objections and demonstrate they can be overcome.
[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]
Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and himself a Republican presidential hopeful, is fond of talking about how "dumb" Republicans sound when they speak to the issues and how they should have their heads examined if they are considering running for the White House in the present environment.
But he has proven to be little more effective than Todd Akin at explaining what makes Republicans right for America and what makes the current liberal spend-it-all, there's-always-more-where-that-came-from philosophy wrong. Entitlement reform is the issue of our time. Republicans need to take charge of the debate with a vocabulary that speaks to the American people.
It's time Republicans got Americans' attention—and held it—on that topic.
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