When President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he could not have foreseen today’s Republican Party.
A bill authored by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, that would require the federal government to balance the budget each year was soundly defeated last week in the Senate. Even Mr. Paul admitted he thought the bill had no chance, but he told The Washington Post his purpose was to point out Republican hypocrisy. Mr. Paul accused his Republican colleagues of engaging in an “unholy alliance” with Democrats to keep increasing spending, thereby adding to the deficit and national debt, which now exceeds $21 trillion with no end in sight.
In the House, Republicans pushed back against President Trump’s proposal to cut a measly $15 billion from several programs. For Congress, $15 billion is pocket change, but even this small amount is too much for the Republican Party, which fears Democrat campaign commercials accusing Republicans of not caring about children and wanting to evict grandma from her home.
Rep. Ryan Costello, Pennsylvania Republican, exposed Republican fears in a comment quoted by The Post: “I worry about the messaging the Democrats will be able to do off it. Those ads write themselves.”
This scenario happens with regularity. Are Republicans so stupid that they can’t see it coming? Are they so inept that they can’t devise a strategy to overcome the left’s predictable tactics and put them on the defensive for their failed, expensive and unnecessary programs, along with their refusal to reform entitlements, the real driver of debt?
If the only motivation for Republicans is the next election, and the one after that, ad infinitum, why have any Republicans in Congress at all? Why have a Republican Party, which once was supposedly the party of small government, low taxes and individual responsibility? Now it seems the party has joined the other side and has become part of the problem rather than the solution.
It’s not that Republicans — and Democrats, for that matter — don’t know how to balance the budget. The bipartisan Balanced Budget Act of 1997 would have balanced the budget by 2002. Unfortunately, the law had a short lifespan. By 1999 and 2000, new legislation was introduced and passed that effectively obliterated the previous attempt at fiscal discipline.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump rightly criticized President Obama for “almost doubl[ing] our national debt to more than $19 trillion, and growing. And yet, what do we have to show for it? Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in Third World condition, and 43 million Americans are on food stamps.”
Even some Democrats get it right sometimes, though when spending push comes to election shove they usually vote with the big spenders. Rep. Bobby Scott, Virginia Democrat, has said, “Obviously, there has to be a profound change in direction. Otherwise, interest on the national debt will start eating up virtually every penny that we have.”
Well, maybe not obviously to many Republicans.
Republicans need to stop fearing the fear factor and start winning arguments. They can start by asking Americans if they want their money to continue to be spent on failed and unnecessary programs. They should then propose alternative programs that do work and promote the power of the individual, which once was paramount before government became our “keeper.”
Fear is not a policy for Republicans. It is surrender. As John F. Kennedy said in another context, “We can do better.”
• Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist. His latest book is “What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America” (Zondervan, 2014).