The Secret Plan to Build a Republican Bill Clinton

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The Republican Party's 2010 plan has been compared to a "political murder-suicide," but murder-suicide is a oxymoron in a zero-sum two-party system where one's loss is always the other's gain. Transforming your party into a Democratic hit-man squad might be good politics, but it's a rotten way to nurture new ideas about public policy.

But some Republicans thinking long-term about 2012 are seeing flashes of 1992, when a smooth triangulating moderate Democrat named William reinvented his party as the country emerged from a recession. What would it take to build a RepubliClinton?


Bruce Bartlett has some ideas in this NYT article. They appear to be, in order: 1) Tax cuts are not to public policy as the number 42 is to the universe; 2) The GOP should encourage shrinking government programs like Medicare; 3) Republicans should support a value-added tax on consumption to help pay down the deficit. Those might all be fine policy ideas but in a national political election I imagine the platform "Fewer Services! More Taxes! Sustainable Government for All!" will be about as popular as the platform "Fewer Cavities! More Drilling! Mandatory Quarterly Dentist Visits for All!"

I tried my hand at designing a Republican Clinton a few months ago. Where could a decently conservative candidate deviate from the hard right? Perhaps on education, by embracing student loan reform and a national test standard, while trumpeting district innovation and school choice. On the environment, a conservative coming out for a low carbon tax as an alternative to government-allocated carbon caps could position himself as an out-of-the-box thinker who's read both the The Weath of Nations and Silent Spring.

But the problem that Bartlett identifies is that on the biggest issue -- too much spending, not enough revenue -- there is no silver bullet. Cutting spending is very unpopular. Raising taxes is very unpopular. And when a country like ours has elections every two years, 'very unpopular' turns into 'voted out of office' very soon. It's just so much easier to go for the short-term political kill than build something lasting. American politics is jerry-rigged to reward parties that see themselves as big swinging wrecking balls, not cranes.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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