Is Colin Powell still a Republican? Is Rush the leader of the GOP? Are the Democrats really socialists? Is Michael Steele an embarrassment or a courageous leader? Should the Party become more 'êmoderate'ê or more 'êconservative?'ê Dick Cheney. Newt Gingrich. Karl Rove. Sarah Palin. On and on and on.
The mainstream media are gleefully obsessed with the future of the GOP, while Republican talking heads continue the navel gazing and self-flagellation. Enough already. No one in the real world cares. Really.
Real live American voters couldn'êt care less whether the Republican Party lives or dies. They don'êt care about some banal argument between Colin Powell and Rush Limbaugh. Words like 'êconservative,'ê 'êliberal,'ê 'êmoderate,'ê 'êcapitalism,'ê and 'êsocialism'ê don'êt concern them.
What voters are worried about is finding and keeping a job. They are worried that they can'êt afford to go to the doctor because the deductible on their health insurance plan is prohibitively high, and that they have lost half their retirement and all the equity in their house. They don'êt think about Iran or climate change every day, but they know those are both real concerns.
Eventually President Obama'ês popularity will recede, and the natural pendulum of politics will swing back towards the party out of power. But for Republicans to once again become the nation'ês governing party they have got to stop talking about themselves and start offering specific solutions to real problems.
Republicans love to talk about their past. Good. In this case they need to emulate their two most successful change agents: Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. Both the 1980 and 1994 Republican landslides were driven by leaders who offered specifics. Reagan built his campaign on a short list of specific proposals, while Gingrich united the entire Republican team around his Contract With America. Today'ês GOP congressional leadership needs to do exactly the same thing.
It appears that Republicans are beginning that process. They offered an alternative budget proposal that included some interesting elements on entitlement reform, and they have launched the classic 'êlistening tour,'ê through something called the National Council for a New America. What the Republicans haven'êt done yet is to unite behind a few key specific proposals, and make it unmistakably clear to voters that these proposals are their alternative to what is being offered by Obama and the Democrats. Getting that done won'êt be easy.
Getting a group of politicians to agree on specific policy is never easy or painless. If you accomplish that, then you need to drown out all the competing voices who seek to define the Republican Party and cut through with a clear message to voters. Not easy, but it must be done.
In terms of substance, Republicans must focus on the core issues: spending and entitlement reform, health care, energy and the environment, national security. Let me offer some suggestions where to start.
Spending is out of control. Deficits are doubling and tripling. Our economy is surviving on credit, and our entitlement programs are generational ponzi schemes that would make Bernie Madoff blush. Yes, earmark pork is bad and Republicans need to really be against it; but the real money and the real crisis is in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Medicare will be broke in nine years, and Social Security isn't far behind. There are only two choices: raise taxes or reduce spending. Republicans must reject higher taxes and instead offer specific plans to bring spending in line with revenue, while preserving the safety net for those who need it.
The future of health care is tied to this debate. Democrats are moving towards higher taxes, and a system of government rationing to control costs. Republicans must offer an alternative package that reduces costs to both employers and insurance companies, making health insurance more affordable and preserving our private sector-based system. Reduce paperwork, regulation, and overhead.
Another component in health care is the need to reform the tort liability system. Encourage businesses to band together to offer coverage. And most importantly, remove the mandated coverage requirements that make it impossible for health insurance carriers to offer low cost plans to healthy young workers 'ê the segment of our population who make up the bulk of the uninsured. Rather than the health care revolution the Democrats propose, Republicans need to advocate for targeted reforms that lower costs while preserving the best parts of our current system.
Similarly, Republicans need to have an alternative to the radical ideas the Democrats have on energy and the environment. Americans are undeniably concerned about pollution, global warming, and the cost of energy. But the Democrats'ê answer, a massive tax increase called cap and trade, is a political non-starter. Republicans need to do more than chant, 'êdrill baby drill!'ê They need to put together a comprehensive plan that uses technology, like hybrid cars, and carbon capture at power plants to protect the climate, while at the same time increasing the use American and Canadian oil, coal, nuclear, wind, and solar power. Americans want to protect the planet without destroying their quality of life. Republicans need to show how that can be done.
Finally, in terms of national security, our new President is governing far more moderately than he campaigned, which is making some liberals wonder if the new boss is the same as the old boss. Republicans need to exploit this divide by praising Obama for retaining much of Bush'ês policy in Iraq, and increasing our commitment to Afghanistan, while at the same time pressuring the new administration to stand firm against the nuclear desires of Iran and North Korea. The public fully understands the danger those rogue states would present if armed with nuclear weapons.
Between now and the 2010 election the onus for leading and defining the Republican Party falls on the congressional leadership. Only they can offer an authoritative counterpoint to the Obama agenda. They need to craft a clear, specific, relevant agenda of their own, and then shove the Bush administration has-beens and the 2012 wannabes off the Sunday morning TV screens. Politics isn'êt a personality-based reality show. Let'ês have a real debate about real issues.