Republicans can win midterm elections by fighting for economic growth and shedding their negative image.
Ronald Reagan often pointed out that the best politics is good policy. With congressional elections less than seven months away, and a presidential vote looming just behind, it's time for Republicans to settle on just what good policy is.
So here's a thought experiment: If you could wave a magic wand and produce policy changes that would achieve just one goal the goal with the most positive political impact -- what would that goal be? Undoubtedly, strong, sustainable economic growth.
Today, five years after the recession officially ended, a large percentage of Americans (47 percent) still list "economic problems" as the nation's most important problem. Nothing else is close.
Health care is the choice of 15 percent of respondents; immigration and illegal aliens, 4 percent; crime, 1 percent. And no wonder. As Edward Lazear, the Stanford economist, has written, this is the worst recovery from an economic downturn in U.S. history, even worse than the one following the Great Depression. Normally, sharp declines in employment and production lead to sharp bounce-backs. Not this time.
The Obama administration has chosen diversion as its strategy for dealing with sluggish growth and high unemployment. Democrats, in their own search for policies that make the best politics, seem to think that trotting out old war horses like the minimum wage will distract middle-income Americans from blaming the party in the White House for the Great Stagnation.
That strategy will work only if Republicans themselves choose the wrong path.The right path is growth. Faster growth would boost jobs and personal income, cut the deficit, and make the nation more secure both at home and abroad. Right now, our gross domestic product is increasing at a rate of 2 percent a year
We could reach twice that. We've done it 17 times since 1965.
A 4 percent rate of growth would lower the budget deficit by $3 trillion, or about one-third, over 10 years. It would add 10 million jobs, boost charitable giving by $200 billion, provide an additional $300 billion for savings and investment, and lift 3 million Americans from poverty.
How to achieve this rate of growth? Begin with tax reform that lowers rates and simplifies an absurdly complicated system; immigration reform that makes America more productive; and expanded trade to increase our export markets and lower costs for consumers at home. Those are just some of the policies that can bring faster growth. They represent a positive approach, built on optimism and a confidence that responsible Americans, less constrained by government, will do great things.
It is clear that Republicans must be the party of "grow." Unfortunately, we are often seen as the party of "no." There's a wing of the party that has a hard time voting for anything. Some members of Congress want to walk off fiscal cliffs and shut down the government. They say "no" to raising the debt ceiling, "no" to repealing taxes like the one on medical devices (by the bizarre logic that repeal would raise support for Obamacare by eliminating one of its deficiencies), "no" to immigration reform (because the president will simply pick and choose the provisions he wants to enforce), "no" to trade negotiating authority (again, we can't trust Obama), and on and on.
In the "no" world, deviation from orthodoxy earns banishment. Forget another Reagan rule: "My 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy." Accuse conservatives like Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and nearly every sitting Republican governor of being squishy. This absolutist mentality enforces a limit to growth -- both on the economy and the party.
Right now, Republicans are riding high, giddy that public opposition to the Affordable Care Act will translate in November into regaining the Senate and building a larger majority in the House. Of course, congressional elections in the sixth year of a presidency favor the minority party. In 1986, for instance, the Republicans lost eight Senate seats even though Reagan's favorable rating was 63 percent.
But even if a policy of "no" to fixing Obamacare, opening up trade, and reforming the tax code and immigration may appear to work in 2014, it will certainly fail in 2016. Republicans need to convince voters that they, and not the Democrats, are the party of "grow."
Growth should be the prism through which all policies flow. The question to answer is: Does the policy change contribute to an increase in GDP? Growth should be our primary goal, our main message, our mantra. "Grow," not "no," is good policy making the best politics.
James K. Glassman, former under secretary of state under President George W. Bush, is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.