- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Where is the Republican vision?

In the journalism pack, it's traditional for an old alpha male to produce a memoir as the end of his career approaches. These efforts are generally windy and forgettable. Typically they blend whines about the state of the world with insider anecdotes about politicians the author has known.

Robert Novak, the conservative commentator, has been around long enough 43 years as a journalist in Washington to qualify as a potential memoir-scribbler. But his new book isn't any such thing. It's a prescription for Republicans in this millennial election year, and it's as rude and pointed as a boot in the boat.

A lot of Republicans won't like Mr. Novak's tone one bit. He quotes a GOP member of Congress as telling him he ought to get on the team. It was fine for the columnist to tackle Democrats when they had the ball, this Republican said, but gosh, Bob, you shouldn't be "tackling your own team" by tearing up the party leadership in print.

Nuts, says Mr. Novak, in effect noting that he isn't even a Republican any more, having left the party when he moved into the District of Columbia recently, so that he could vote in the Democratic primary there.

But while he may not be at the moment a Republican, he is a conservative, and "for all its failings, the Republican Party is the only practical vehicle of conservatism in American politics." So Bob Novak modestly reserves the right to tell the party how to win. In Washington, his ideas probably sound radical. Elsewhere in the country, most if not all of them are likely to sound a lot more like ordinary common sense.

For starters, Mr. Novak says, Republicans need to end the panicky retreat which began not long after their apparent success in the 1994 congressional elections and turned into a rout in the fall of 1998 with the capitulation of the Republican leadership to President Bill Clinton on the budget. Why should voters support Clintonized Republicans, he asks quite reasonably when the Democrats offer the real thing?

Here is Bob Novak's 10-point program for the Republicans. (Each point gets a chapter in the book; the descriptions are chapter headings.)

1) Use the budget surplus to cut taxes for everyone.

2) Endorse a national sales tax to replace the Internal Revenue service Code.

3) Establish true personal accounts for Social Security.

4) Stop reflexively opposing campaign finance reform.

5) Embrace global free markets.

6) Welcome the religious conservatives as a force for good.

7) Stand firm in support of the right to life.

8) Reach out to women and minorities without compromising the message.

9) Endorse a foreign policy based on strength and engagement, but for the right reasons.

10) Don't be afraid of term limits.

Some, and perhaps most, of those ideas are debatable. But taken as a whole, they provide a coherent, mainstream conservative philosophy of the sort which Republicanism used to represent. Yet at the same time, it's one which bears little resemblance to the philosophy the country hears from the Republicans it has sent to Washington.

Mr. Novak writes about being on an interview show with several journalists and a member of the House Republican leadership. What about gun control, the journalists asked? What about a higher minimum wage? Those are Democratic proposals, of course, but the Republican didn't dare disavow them. We'll get to them soon, he promised meekly, while the journalists presumably purred.

What's most needed for Republicans, Mr. Novak suggests, is the simple courage to stand for something whether or not it's something Mr. Clinton opposes or something the focus groups are unclear about. But the Republicans now in Congress seem unwilling to do that.

Why? It isn't because of political cowardice, Mr. Novak rather charitably suggests. Rather, he says, it's the equivalent of a good basketball team trying to sit on a lead, playing not to lose rather than playing to win. And as favored Duke learned in last year's NCAA final against the University of Connecticut, that can be fatal. Duke was "cautious, timid and spooked," notes Mr. Novak the lifelong basketball fan, and lost the game. Sound familiar?

So who can lead the Republicans out of their funk? They might need a Ronald Reagan-like savior, but there's none in sight, and they'll have to choose from what's available. Mr. Novak thinks George W. Bush, at least on paper meets the basic requirements: He's not from Washington; he's won elections in a big state; and he can potentially attract minorities and other groups who traditionally vote Democratic.

But Bush II isn't a Mr. Reagan. And party leadership attained by anointment, as Mr. Bush's seems largely to have been, is likely to be less tempered and durable than that won by battle and perseverance, as was Mr. Reagan's. Bob Novak knows that too, which is one reason why his book, while laying out a persuasive game plan for the Republicans, doesn't go so far as to predict victory.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer living in Maryland.

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