Maybe Republicans should be given a federally funded handicap to help make electoral contests equal. This is a reform idea no one has proposed, but not for lack of evidence that Republicans need the help. The most recent example was their budget surrender, which not only broke the spending caps but also eliminated the tax cut that was supposed to be the centerpiece of their campaign in 2000 to maintain control of the House.
A recent New York Times/CBS poll showed that "Democrats enjoy public confidence on most critical election issues, from health care to education to Social Security." This cannot be because Democrats have done such a good job managing health, education and welfare, because according to the Democrats themselves, every one of these systems is in crisis and needs billions of dollars to repair.
In Washington, of course, evading responsibility is an art form, so it is not always easy to tell who's responsible for which mess. But with some issues, like education policy, it's pretty clear who is the fibber and who is the goat.
To begin with, education is not principally a federal issue. More than 90 percent of each education dollar is raised and spent at the local level. Democrats, liberals and not a few Marxists have controlled most of the big-city school systems in America for the last 70 years.
When you add the 40 years of continuous Democratic rule of Congress before Republicans took the House in '94, it's easy to see that Democrats are responsible for everything that's wrong with public schools -- at least everything that can be fixed by public policies.
Yet according to the poll, Democrats have the public's confidence on education. Education is even perceived as a "Democratic issue." How can this be?
Is it because the Democratic slander -- that Republicans don't care about education -- has some bite to it? Or that Republicans do care but don't have an answer to the failures that Democrats have fostered? Or is it that Republicans don't have programs to rescue poor and minority children from the fate to which Democrats have consigned them?
Actually, it's none of the above. Republicans have the programs, but what they don't have is the foggiest idea of how to present them to the American electorate in a way that would win its confidence. They seem clueless about how to fight this political battle.
Politics is, of course, a war conducted by other means, but Republicans shrink from having to fire a shot in the education debate. Instead, they have mentally withdrawn from the battle and allowed Democrats to position themselves as the education party. In the maneuvering over the education budget, what you hear from Democrats is that Republicans are Scrooges. All they want is tax breaks for the wealthy on the backs of the poor.
The Republican answer is a whine that says: "OK, we'll concede a little money to show we're not as hard-hearted as you say. We'll let the president have the funding he wants for 100,000 new teachers. But we have our doubts this will do the job. What we really think is that he's just paying off the unions."
What the public outside the Beltway hears from these exchanges is this: Republicans have doubts about funding education. (Any more complicated explanation is lost in the static.) Republicans may care about education, but they don't care as much as Democrats. And without the leadership of the Democrats, they wouldn't care at all.
Of course, if the education crisis could be solved by adding more teachers, who would oppose that? The problem is that Democrats have been adding teachers and dollars for decades, while the education crisis has only gotten worse.
Republicans have an explanation: You can add all the teachers and dollars you want, but if there is no connection between teachers' performances and their rewards, there is no way the result will significantly improve.
One may disagree whether "vouchers" or "opportunity scholarships" or a drastic weakening of the union lobby is the way to connect educational performance and reward so that students actually learn. But there can be no doubt that the Democratic Party, tied as it is to bankrupt policies and reactionary special interests, is the party least likely to deliver better results.
Of course, many parents are already not listening to the Republicans because the Democrats have convinced them that all Republicans care about are tax breaks for the rich. What tag have the Republicans pinned on their Democratic opponents in return? Nothing.
How can Republicans get their message through to the electorate? Only by doing what Democrats do. Only by attacking their opponents and their credibility. So here's a strategy: During 50 years of mismanagement, Democrats have crippled the public education system. In major cities like Los Angeles and New York nearly 50 percent of the minority students are not completing high school. Democrats have taken away the bottom rungs of the ladder of success for minorities and the poor. Given these facts you can choose your rhetoric. But where is the Republican who will use it?
Because Republicans generally are so inept at political combat, Democrats escape the disasters they have created and the public debate looks like this: Democrats want more money for education; Republicans want less. Framed this way, Republicans will always lose.
In politics, as in football, if you are always playing defense, you are probably getting beaten. If Republicans have not identified Democrats as the cause of the education crisis going into the policy debate, they have already tied one hand behind their back, cupped the other over their mouth and put a 100-pound weight around their legs.
This non-strategy is so pervasive that it even affects Republicans' ability to hold their ground in territory that is traditionally theirs. Consider the "Republican issue" of national defense. For the last 50 years, American voters have (correctly) trusted Republicans to defend the national interest more than Democrats. Democrats have appeared "soft" on America's adversaries in international conflicts, and unwilling to spend the dollars necessary for effective defense. But look at what happened recently in the debate on the Clinton-sponsored Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The congressional debate pitted the philosophies of the parties against each other. Democrats argued for the treaty, Republicans were opposed. The Democrats favored an arms-control agreement because they believe in the fundamental good intentions of most human beings and their ability to use reason in their own interest (survival). Republicans opposed it because they are skeptical of arms-control strategies and suspicious of intentions while retaining a healthy respect for human beings' (demonstrated) record of bad behavior.
Democrats defended the nuclear test ban as a moment of truth for American leadership. Ratification, they argued, would set an example to other nations to pursue a path of sanity and restraint. Rejecting the treaty would be to abandon America's leadership role, leaving the world to its own devices. Republicans had a different idea. They argued that arms-control programs are proven failures and dangerous because of that.
Every schoolchild remembers the international arms-control policies that were put in place after the First World War in the hope of avoiding another. The Western democracies -- America, England and France -- observed the treaties, but the dictatorships -- Germany and Japan -- did not. Arms-control illusions allowed the Axis powers to gain a military advantage in the inter-war years, and thus tempted them to risk a military confrontation.
Arms-control illusions were a major cause of World War II. During the Cold War, the United States observed, while the Soviet Union did not, the arms-control agreements that their leaders had negotiated. Arms control tied America's hands but not those of its adversaries. Republicans see no reason to believe that the present treaty will be any different in practice.
The test ban treaty was therefore a philosophical moment of truth. Republicans had a better sense of history and a more realistic view of human nature behind them. They opposed the treaty because present-day technologies cannot verify whether small nuclear explosions have actually taken place. These explosions are necessary to the development of nuclear weapons by powers like China, Iraq and other despotic states, and there is no way to ensure that they would observe the treaty once they had signed it.
Naturally, China and even Iraq supported the treaty. They did so because they knew that it would tie America's hands but not their own. The United States, which has an open society, would be compelled to observe the treaty terms. Closed societies like China and Iraq would not.
Republicans clearly had the better side of the argument. Both history and realism dictated that the United States should not sign. Yet Republicans lost the public debate.
The reason the Republicans lost the test ban treaty debate is that even though Democrats lost the congressional vote, they went on the public-relations offensive. The Senate rejection of the treaty was accompanied by White House laments that Republicans had been seduced by the "isolationist" fallacy: If America retreated to its continental fortress, it could ignore what happened in the world outside. Editorials in the liberal media supported the president's assault.
And what did Republicans do in response? Did they go on a political offensive? No. They explained that they were misunderstood. They explained that they were not really isolationists and it was unfair to label them so. Unfair? Since when is politics fair?
As for the public, what it heard was that Republicans were denying the charge that they were isolationists. It doesn't take a Dick Morris to tell you which end of this political stick you would rather be holding as voters go into the polling booth.
What the voting public did not hear was any charge leveled against the Democrat opponents of the treaty. Sure there were plenty of arguments that died inside the Beltway or on cable TV. But there was no buzzword like "isolationist" that might stick to the other side. The label the Republicans needed to stick on their Democratic opponents was "appeasers." The Test Ban Treaty was about appeasing regimes like China and Iraq, despotic regimes that have never signed an agreement they were not prepared to break. In sum, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was designed to mollify dictatorships and potential aggressors, and notorious violators of international norms. Once again, Democrats had let their liberal optimisms fog their political vision and lead them down imprudent paths.
Who would win this contest of labels at the polling booths or in the public debate? If you have any doubt, think of which charge would you like to defend: isolationist or appeaser?
A third issue that illuminates Republican ineptitude concerns the Democrats' trump card -- the matter of race. Republicans have been so roundly beaten on this issue for so long that all Democrats have to do is show up to win. In particular, all they have to do is nominate a corrupt and morally challenged African-American for an ambassadorial position to create a political Waterloo for the conservative opposition. If the Republicans ratify the nomination, Democrats win. If Republicans oppose the nomination, Democrats can insinuate they are racists. And they can count on Republicans to cooperate in their own defeat.
As a senator, Carol Moseley-Braun was famous for brown-nosing Nigeria's dictator -- a murderer and oppressor of black Africans. In doing so, Moseley-Braun even brought on herself the ire of the Clinton administration and left-wing organizations like Transafrica. Did Republicans remind Democrats of this when the nomination came up? No. Did they say that because of the charges against Moseley-Braun and her lack of concern for suffering Nigerians, her nomination was insulting to all Americans and to African-Americans in particular? No. Instead, the Republicans' senatorial champion, Jesse Helms, made it clear that his motive in opposing her nomination was revenge for her opposition to the Confederate flag!
The night they drove old Dixie down, all the liberals were singing.
Can Republicans be saved from themselves? If they are true to their principles of individual responsibility and limited government, the answer is surely no. They cannot take a government subsidy to compensate for their own ineptitude, and they should not whine about the Democrats' unfairness or the left-wing bias in the nation's media. If there is any saving to do, they are going to have to do it themselves.