GOP has momentum, needs clear direction

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This has been quite a week or ten days for Republicans. As this is written, down in South Carolina Rick Perry has just announced he's running for president, while in Ames, Iowa, most of the votes have been cast but none have yet been counted in the Iowa Republican straw poll.

Yesterday Sarah Palin walked slowly through crowds at the Iowa State Fair and addressed voters there on the set of Sean Hannity's Fox News program.

Pundits will parse the Iowa results and the Perry polling to determine which candidate is up and which down or out. The Iowa straw poll may prove to be the last stop for some Republican candidates as it was in 1999 and 2007.

More important than the fate of individual candidates has been the rush of events going the Republicans' way.

Barack Obama's job rating has slid to record lows in the Gallup poll and his job approval fell under 50 percent even in New York. His speech last Monday night had a deer-in-the-headlights quality even as he turned mechanically from one teleprompter to another.

Standard & Poor has downgraded the government's credit rating for the first time in history. The stock market went through a week of horrifying gyrations. Then on Friday the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down as unconstitutional Obamacare's individual mandate to buy health insurance.

"Republicans are winning the argument over the Obama policies. But they aren't yet making the strongest case for their own." -- Michael Barone

The president's policies are in shambles. Things are not working out the way he and his advisers expected. His journalist cheering section has been voicing doubts and dismay.

But it's not entirely clear where Republicans want to go either, or whether they have candidates with the potential to take them there.

Yes, they have some quick answers. Repeal Obamacare? By all means. Approve a tax increase in return for genuine large spending cuts? All eight candidates at the Washington Examiner-Fox News debate Friday night dutifully raised their hands to say no.

Beyond that, not so much clear direction.

Some candidates did mention intelligent policy initiatives in the debate. Mitt Romney called for more high-skill immigration, a policy backed by a bipartisan Brookings panel. Michele Bachmann calls for buying health insurance with tax-free money, a homey way to advocate elimination of the tax preference for employer-provided health insurance.

Thaddeus McCotter, the Michigan congressman whose candidacy has attracted little attention, called for tough stress tests and recapitalizing the big banks by debt-for-equity swaps. These are all solid ideas, and even have the potential for bipartisan support.

Unfortunately some candidates put great emphasis on constitutional amendments, to require a balanced budget and to ban same-sex marriage, which will never pass. Nor is it clear these are presidential issues. Article V of the Constitution says it can be amended by supermajorities in Congress and among the state legislatures. The president has no more say than any other voter.

So it's possible that the Republican nominee, if he or she avoids stumbles and conditions remain as they are, can win just by running against the failed policies of the Obama Democrats. But that's not necessarily enough to successfully govern.

Republicans can successfully argue that Democratic promises of absolute security cannot be kept. Federal entitlements are, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, running out of other people's money.

The problem for Republicans is that it's impossible to foresee exactly how free market policies will improve people's lives. Back when Ronald Reagan was running during a similar Democratic breakdown in 1980, no one foresaw the wonders of the Internet.

The best attempt to suggest the possibilities I've heard here in Iowa came from McCotter, speaking at the Des Moines Register's soapbox on the midway of the State Fair. "The answer," he said, "is not to put your dreams in centralized bureaucratic Washington. The future is self-government, empowerment of the individual, a citizen-driven and more horizontal government." We need policies that enable us to choose our own future, just as we choose our own iPod playlists and design our own Facebook pages.

That could have special appeal to young people, who voted 66 to 32 percent for Barack Obama in 2008. The hope and change he promised has turned sour and Democrats' welfare state policies have proved more a straitjacket than a safety net.

Republicans are winning the argument over the Obama policies. But they aren't yet making the strongest case for their own.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

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