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Jewish World Review March 13, 2000 /6 Adar II, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Are there any Republican issues left? --
WELL, THAT WAS BRACING! Normally, the phrase "exciting Republican primary contest" would be up there with "government efficiency" and "jumbo shrimp" as an oxymoron. But this year proved surprisingly lively. Lively but, at the end of the day, distracting -- because the issues that dominated the primaries were poor preparation for the contest to come.

Powered by personality (which everyone who has watched John McCain closely has learned is not the same thing as character), the McCain campaign was able to steer attention to the senator's pet causes. And because campaign finance reform happens also to be among the media's pet causes, we heard far more about it than most voters really cared to hear. In California, a campaign finance reform ballot initiative was defeated 65 percent to 35 percent, and the number of Super Tuesday voters who said the issue was a high priority was in the single digits.

The presence of McCain in the contest also put religious bigotry front and center -- which is a little bizarre. Chalk it up to the media's willingness to go wherever McCain led them. George W. Bush certainly has his shortcomings, but to label him insensitive to anti-Catholic bigotry was the kind of politics McCain professed to despise.

Still, it is odd, isn't it, that the Republicans had very little else to talk about? There was some tax cut discussion and a dash of education policy. But what became of the old Republican stand-bys?

The answer is that Republicans are the victims of their own success. The issues that propelled them to power over the past generation tended to be four: welfare, crime, defense and taxes. With the exception of the last, Republicans have carried the day.

Tax cuts continue to be popular, but only in state and local contests. Voters tend not to trust tax-cut promises from federal candidates (gadzooks!). Also, the tax bite has been shifted so heavily toward upper income earners that the vast middle class isn't paying very much federal tax anyway.

The need to reform welfare was a reliable Republican complaint about Democratic rule. But once in control of Congress, Republicans passed welfare reform -- and, because it was an election year, Bill Clinton signed it. (He also signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, but in 2000 he condemned a California ballot initiative that said the same thing. The measure passed, by the way, in Democrat-leaning California by 60 percent to 40 percent.) Welfare reform has been a huge success. Naturally, Clinton and Gore have claimed credit.

Crime was another issue that earned Republicans votes over the years. For the most part, and this is a slight caricature, Democrats favored leniency toward criminals and Republicans favored throwing away the key. Throughout the 1970s, the nation followed the Democrats' policies, and crime soared. Starting in the 1980s, the country switched to the Republican strategy of locking them up, and crime rates began to decline. In the 1990s, with the passing of the crack epidemic and the innovative crime prevention policies of Republican mayors like Rudy Giuliani, crime declined dramatically. Who gets the credit? You know who.

The nation still needs defending -- but you can go months without seeing any international news on the front pages. Ronald Reagan and the Republicans won the Cold War. In so doing, they accomplished one of the greatest feats of world history -- destroying an evil, expansionist empire without fighting a major war. But the byproduct of this victory was to convince Americans (wrongly) that they were free to ignore the world for a good long time.

Even a Republican standard like balancing the budget has gone the way of the stegosaurus, and again Republicans have only themselves to blame. It was they who forced Clinton to sign a balanced budget in 1995. You can guess who is taking the credit.

Bush had better bone up on the issues that are likely to dominate the fall campaign. Gore will stress expanding the government's role in health care, spending more on education, funding universal preschool and gun control.

There are conservative alternatives to all of the above -- but it isn't clear that Bush is conversant with them. Bush spends a lot of time trying to prove "what's on my heart." That's fine, but voters more urgently need to know what's in his head.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate