Big ideas sometimes play a role in political campaigns, but not in this year's midterm elections. Republican candidates concentrate on linking their opponents to President Obama and his policies. That's it. Democrats are understandably wary of defending Obama. They go after Republicans on minor or trumped-up issues, often in unscrupulous TV ads.
This formula is working for Democrats. For them, victory in the elections would be holding Republicans to minimal gains and retaining control of the Senate. If nothing changes, they have a shot. So Republicans need to break the pattern of the campaign. They can do it by attaching themselves to a few big ideas. They've done this before.
In 1978, the Kemp-Roth tax cut was introduced. It proposed to slash individual income tax rates by one-third, across the board. Conceived by Jack Kemp, then a Republican congressman from Buffalo, and cosponsored by Senator Bill Roth of Delaware, it was a big ideabold, radical, and controversial. Yet national chairman Bill Brock adopted Kemp-Roth as official GOP policy in that year's elections, and scores of the party's candidates campaigned on it.
Republicans grabbed onto a second big idea in 1978: reversing the national security policies of President Carter. This included support for a hefty military buildup, rejection of an arms control treaty with the Soviet Union (SALT II), approval of the B-1 bomber whose production Carter had canceled, and adoption of a hard-line policy against Soviet expansionism. The idea of such an abrupt turnaround stirred vigorous debate.
It was a gamble to make these big ideas the centerpiece of their campaign. Republicans could have spent their time criticizing Carter and his policies. But by offering credible alternatives they fostered Republican unity and elevated the seriousness of the campaign. Republicans won 3 seats in the Senate that fall, 15 in the Housea modest success though not quite a GOP wave.
But the two big ideas were crucial in a second election. Over the next two years, tax cuts and defense were the constant focus of Republican activity. And in 1980, they became the foundation of the GOP campaign. This time there was a wave. Ronald Reagan won the presidency with a mandate to cut taxes and enlarge the military. Republicans won a dozen seats and control of the Senate. They picked up 34 House seats.
There's a message here for Republicans in 2014. They can stick with their cautious strategy, and it might lead to a Senate majority. Or they can seek a larger victory this year and an even larger one in 2016 by embracing big ideas. I have two in mind.
(1) Abolish the IRS as we know it. This was once a crazy idea of right-wingers, but no longer. The Internal Revenue Service has always been unpopular. But now it's notorious for being arbitrary, inefficient, and glaringly corrupt. Does anyone with an IQ over 50 believe all those emails from IRS officials involved in harassing conservative groups were erased by accident?
Turning the IRS into an agency of ethical accountants wouldn't require an entirely new government bureau. The framework of the IRS and even the name could stay. Two sweeping changes would transform it. One is to narrow sharply the discretion of IRS officials. The other is to simplify the tax code in a way that leaves the IRS with responsibilities an accountant can handle without advice from political appointees.
(2) Revive America's ability to project power and influence in the world. Just as Republicans called for turning away from Carter's policies in 1978, they should make reversing Obama's a major theme. He has shrunk the military to its pre-Pearl Harbor size and backed away from American leadership abroad. This is a historic retreat from our role of protecting world order since World War II.
Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal have written persuasively about America's decline as a benign force in the world. "Unless Americans can be led back to an understanding of their enlightened self-interest, to see again how their fate is entangled with that of the world, then the prospects for a peaceful 21st century in which Americans and American principles can thrive will be bleak," Kagan wrote in the New Republic.
Stephens's view is captured in the title of his new book, to be published by Sentinel in November: America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. An excerpt from the book in Commentary is aptly titled "The Meltdown." Obama, Stephens writes, "assumed high office with so much global goodwill" and squandered it.
The opening for Republicans is clear. Americans don't want to engage in another war, but neither do they want a weak and cringing America led by a president fearful of acting without the approval of the "international community." Restoring American strength in the worldboth military and moralshould become a relentless Republican theme. So should the urgent need for a military buildup.
There are other big ideas. House majority leader Kevin McCarthy has suggested energy independence that spotlights steps taken by House Republicans but opposed by Obama and Democrats. Tax reform is big enough an idea, but it has a problem as a campaign theme. People love the concept, but hate the specifics. And Democrats would target (and exaggerate) the specifics.
The beauty of abolishing the IRS and restoring American influence is that Democrats would be left without a good response. They're unlikely to rush to the defense of the IRS. And they'd have trouble claiming, à la Woodrow Wilson, that Obama kept us out of war just as he is getting into one.
There's real risk in embracing big ideas. They may cause you to lose. But promoting ideas you believe in as critical to the country's ascendency and the willingness to take a political hit in advancing themthat's the mark of leadership. For Republicans in 2014, it's also good politics.