- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2000

When Robert Novak, the astute dean of Washington political commentators, writes a book telling congressional Republicans how to win the next election "Completing the Revolution: A Vision for Victory in 2000" the rest of us would be fools not to pay attention. As there is much of timely value in Mr. Novak's new book, I will reserve for another occasion my critique of his harsh mis-assessment of Newt Gingrich's performance as speaker.

Republican congressmen and strategists should sit down and read this book before they make another decision, because it raises the central strategic question for congressional Republicans this year: Should they hunker down, do nothing and hope that a winning Republican presidential campaign pulls them across the finish line as a majority? Or should they identify attractive Republican issues and do something about them?

Mr. Novak's answer: "If the Republican Party is not going to deal with term limits, abortion, affirmative action, reduction of government, tax credits, tax reform or deregulation, then does it make that much difference who is in power? The Republicans have to make the case that it does, and the only way to do so is to have the courage of their convictions." He is careful not to fall into the trap of equating political courage with political suicide. He is trying to make a case for victory, not for going down with flags flying.

Before looking at some of his substantive points, we need to consider whether there is a possibly fatal dislocation between Mr. Novak's proposed strategy and the capacity of the congressional Republicans to carry it out.

In 1995, even with inspired leadership, a bigger majority and a surging sense of party optimism, it was excruciatingly difficult to pass most of the "Contract with America." In 2000, with a corrosive pessimism in the congressional ranks, only a five vote majority in the House, at least seven willfully complacent and inert Republican senators and a leadership that is not yet tested, is there a plausible chance that any legislative agenda that is vividly Republican could pass the Congress?

And if not, does the failed effort to pass it frustrate the Republican base and make congressional Republicans look unfit to govern? Do they also run the risk of causing a split between them and a more centrist Bush or McCain presidential agenda? It is my sense that most senior Republican strategists judge the current team not to be up to a bold legislative initiative. They argue that wisdom consists of caution and inaction. In all honesty, I cannot make a technical argument to the contrary.

But nonetheless, I side with Mr. Novak. As difficult as it will be to rally a dispirited and divided team to a legislative expression of Republican convictions, my 40 years in politics tells me that it would be harder yet to lead such a team to electoral victory while they passively await their fate.

I don't have the space to discuss all Mr. Novak's proposed issues (read the book; there is a nice combination of shining idealism and practical politics on almost every page). But two of his issues caught my eye.

First, Mr. Novak argues that the Republicans must reach for independent, swing and Reform Party voters by staking out strong reform issues in 2000. He argues for campaign reform, term limits and a radical redesign of Congress (increase the number of members, cut their pay and cut the length of the sessions).

While the last proposal is too radical for my taste, Mr. Novak's point is deeply insightful. With party affiliations slipping, and Washington politics in bad odor, congressional Republicans must, at the minimum, return to the reformist instincts of the "Contract with America" period. By my estimate almost four in 10 likely voters will be seeking reform candidates for whom to vote. Republican legislative efforts must offer honest grounds for being judged reformist.

The second noteworthy issue is Mr. Novak's treatment of global free markets. I have been ruminating about that issue in this column for months, but I am still at the head-scratching, chin-pulling stage. Mr. Novak is looking for a way for the Republican Party to support global free trade, while also expressing solidarity with legitimate populist concerns. His solution is to support free trade, but oppose IMF and World Bank bailouts of failing economies around the world.

With the world economy strengthening, however, I doubt the news cycle will provide much public attention to the IMF issue. For the moment, that is yesterday's issue. But Mr. Novak's instinct is right. The congressional GOP should not stray from the principle of free trade, but should begin to show legitimate concern about the arrogance of the international bureaucrats and their possible usurpation of national authority global trade, not global government.

Robert Novak's book is an urgent and needed reminder to the congressional Republicans, that if they try to save their majority by being inconspicuous in 2000, they will end up being even more so in 2001.

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