Faced with Chance of Winning, GOP Asks, "Now What?"

Republicans are starting to think about how to answer the Robert Redford question.

You know the scene. In the 1972 movie "The Candidate," the Redford character, having won the election, turns to his political consultant and asks, "What do I do now?"

Many Republicans fear they will look as clueless as Redford. They entered this campaign cycle with little hope of winning congressional majorities. Now they have a good chance to do so in the House and an outside chance in the Senate.

Some cynical Republicans say candidates should just harp on their opposition to the policies of the Obama Democrats and figure out what to do if they're in the majority when they get there. Others say they should present public policy alternatives.

Some young House Republicans have put out a call for voters to e-mail their ideas. And House Republican leaders say they'll put together something in the nature of a 1994-style Contract With America over the August recess.

That's a good idea. Politicians like to win elections. But if they're not in the business in order to shape public policy, why are they there at all?

Let's put this in some historic perspective.

Liberal historians like to depict the past 100 years as a story of step-by-step progress from small government to big government, a progress they see as both inevitable and desirable.

But another way to look at it is to note that after each spasm of big government legislation there has been a strong voter backlash.

That was the case in the big Republican victory in the 1946 off-year elections right after World War II. And in the 1966 elections, about which I wrote Wednesday, after the passage of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

There is an assumption in the political world that spending cuts will be unpopular: Americans, it is said, are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal.

It happened again with Ronald Reagan's 44-state landslide in 1980, when Republicans won a Senate majority for the first time in 28 years. And again in 1994, after the Clinton tax increases and health care plan, when Republicans won both houses in Congress for the first time in 40 years. Polls tell us it could happen again this November.

The question is what winning Republicans did with their victories. The answers vary.

After 1946, Republicans passed a big tax cut, ended wartime wage and price controls and limited the powers of labor unions. These were enduring public policy successes.

After 1966, Republicans didn't achieve much. Richard Nixon, elected president in 1968, continued the anti-poverty program, instituted wage and price controls, created the Occupational Safety and Health Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, established racial quotas and preferences and proposed a guaranteed annual income--not a conservative success story.

After 1980, Ronald Reagan got Congress to pass major tax cuts and some spending cuts, continued the deregulation begun in the Ford and Carter years and pursued a defense buildup that produced a peaceful victory in the Cold War.

And after 1994, congressional Republicans froze spending and produced balanced budgets, passed market-oriented health measures and passed education accountability legislation. Things got patchy toward the end of the 12 years of Republican majorities, but there's a lot to say for their record as a whole.

There are some obvious targets for Republicans if they win big this year. Democrats have jacked up domestic spending sharply; some reversal should be possible. The many glitches in Obamacare, some apparent now and others as yet undiscovered, could form a basis for derailment if not repeal.

Giveaways to labor unions, like the $26 billion package for the teacher unions which the House is to be summoned back from its recess to pass, presumably will be off the table.

Larger issues need to be addressed. We're overdue for a simplifying tax reform. And there is the looming crisis in entitlements --Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

There is an assumption in the political world that spending cuts will be unpopular: Americans, it is said, are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal.

But there is some evidence that voters will back governors who cut spending, such as Mitch Daniels, re-elected while Barack Obama was carrying Indiana in 2008, and Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie, elected in Virginia and New Jersey in 2009 and now enjoying good job ratings.

One reason is that as candidates they let voters know what they would do. There are risks in taking stands. But there are also risks in looking as clueless as Robert Redford.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/dra_schwartz

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