New conservatives should learn from past

February 28, 2010


Young conservatives swelled the audiences at the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Conservative Political Action Conference this year, and the speakers included many fresh faces.

But a distinct deja vu pervaded the policy proposals beyond the speakers’ oft-repeated riffs deriding President Barack Obama’s use of TelePrompTers and pledging to try terrorists before military tribunals.

Conservative crusaders vowing to rescue Washington from liberal infidels again offered familiar prescriptions: sweeping tax cuts, a smaller federal government, less regulation and a tougher stance against foreign foes.

Only a few conceded, amid the overheated rhetoric, the practical difficulties in achieving this agenda or its efficacy. In fact, time has validated John Anderson’s 1980 rejoinder that only “with mirrors” can one cut taxes, raise defense spending and balance the budget.

Several warned that a Republican takeover would not guarantee nirvana, including television personality Glenn Beck and former Texas Rep. Dick Armey, who railed against “politicians” and “ideologues” — though he qualifies as the former and, to critics, the latter.

Beck said the two parties are similar: One “will tax and spend”; the other “won’t tax but will spend.”

Armey urged the Tea Party movement, which he has championed, against pursuing formal alliances with the GOP unless Republicans “show they’re worthy of our loyalty.”

Alluding to spending from the Bush administration and the last GOP Congress, he said: “Let’s not leave them to their own devices once we succeed. We will be aware of your penchant for drinking back-sliders’ wine.”

On the whole, for someone who has attended these conclaves since Ronald Reagan urged conservatives in the 1970s to hoist a banner of “bold colors,” not “pale pastels,” the atmosphere recalled those days and Newt Gingrich’s 1994 push to overthrow 40 years of Democratic congressional dominance.

Conservatives again feel they are on the brink of something big. Though virtually every big GOP name save Sarah Palin came to revel, attendees seemingly preferred outsiders like Beck and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who won the annual presidential preference poll.

None received a more rabid reception than former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, the young Cuban-American mounting a Senate challenge to Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.

Though a new face, Rubio’s agenda sounded fresh from 1980: across-the-board tax cut; end “double taxation” of capital gains, interest, dividends and the “death tax”; and “do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to defeat radical Islamo-terrorism.”

Mitt Romney, previewing a forthcoming book, urged simplifying and lowering taxes, “replacing outmoded regulation with dynamic modern regulation” and “building missile defense, restoring our military might.”

Speakers seemingly forgot that Reagan’s initial across-the-board tax cut prompted several successor measures coupling spending curbs with revenue “enhancers,” or that the federal payroll and deficit increased so much on his watch that two successors had to enact spending cuts and tax increases to offset them.

Or the more recent Bush legacy: tax cuts and spending increases that swelled the deficit once more.

Also overlooked was that 1990s GOP efforts to slash federal programs encountered such popular resistance they soon collapsed. No wonder presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor, stuck to generalities when asked on NBC’s Meet the Press how he’d cut spending.

Ironically, on the day Rubio and Romney proposed to go back in the future, Obama named the chairmen of a bipartisan commission to tackle all aspects of the deficit, including taxes and spending.

Republican leaders, after initially threatening to boycott lest the panel urge tax increases with spending cuts, agreed to participate. But doubts persist whether it can achieve meaningful results.

Still, this commission holds more promise of curbing the deficit than all the CPAC speeches against this “big government” that Republicans helped Democrats perpetuate, even while railing loudly against it.

— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com


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