One of the reasons Republicans govern less successfully than Democrats is that conviction is rarer among Republicans. Under fierce intellectual attack since the days of Calvin Coolidge (the 1920s), Republicans have been made unsure of their ideas — a strong defense and a balanced budget being the only exceptions.

In contrast, Democrats have been fawned over by artists and intellectuals, professors and historians. Democratic follies have been elevated into the highest realms of politics and statesmanship. Democrats are praised for their caring and compassion, social vision and moral leadership. This pattern is so well established that not even a Bill Clinton can break the mold.

Aware of their image disadvantage, Republicans are dressing up like Democrats. In announcing his first Cabinet appointments, George W. Bush was careful not to include any white men. To pacify sexually active unmarried women and racial minorities, Republicans are no longer aggressive in their opposition to quotas and minority preferences (racism).

Republicans thus find themselves in the anomalous position of going along with immoral and unconstitutional policies in order to shield themselves from criticism. They also find themselves giving their economic policies tiptoe support despite having won the vast majority of policy debates.

Hoping to stem the drain of conviction from Republican ranks, the editor of The Wall Street Journal, Robert Bartley, on Dec. 22 reminded Republicans that real accomplishment requires deep conviction. President Reagan’s tax rate reduction succeeded, Bartley said, because Reagan had men of conviction like Norman Ture and Paul Craig Roberts.

In these days of fleeting fame, it is rewarding to be remembered by an important person for one’s efforts 20 years ago. The pleasure of recognition aside, Bartley has put his finger on the most important ingredient for an administration that intends to be purposeful. Without conviction, nothing happens. Even with conviction, nothing may happen.

Democrats with conviction are one thing; Republicans another. Democrats are permitted conviction, because their causes are “moral.” Republican causes are immoral, and this makes a Republican with conviction a target.

Viewed as dangerous by the opposition, a Republican policymaker with conviction is in danger. Heaven forbid! Taxes might be cut or a missile defense system put in place. Convicted by his conviction, the Republican policymaker has to work while fending off slings and arrows from every direction.

His more timid colleagues pass the word that his extremism is hurting the administration (and frustrating their efforts to social climb in the smart dinner party set). Enormous numbers of people lobby the person of conviction to compromise away the policy. Despite President Reagan’s unflagging support, his tax reduction bill almost did not make it out of his administration. Once passed, it was almost overturned a few months later by his budget director and chief of staff.

If Treasury Secretary Don Regan had not been a self-confident person who could not be beaten down by media ridicule and dinner party snubs, there would have been no tax reduction in 1981. Ture and I were so accustomed to being known as the “voodoo fringe” that the Treasury Department awarded us t-shirts printed with that label.

In a word, it is costly for a Republican to have Republican convictions. A Democrat with conviction is an idealist. A Republican is an “extremist.”

Where will George W. Bush and his designated Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, find the people with the conviction to get a meaningful tax cut passed? Can an administration that wants to prove how reasonable and moderate it is stand the image of extremism associated with tax-rate reduction?

Missile defense has fervent and experienced advocates, but can a moderate administration stand that kind of heat?

Bartley is right: To govern well, Bush needs officials with vision and conviction. If Bush appoints such people and then fails to confront his opponents (which includes the media) on the issues, he will simply demoralize the few men of conviction that the Republican Party can muster. The electorate will sense the lack of conviction, and Republicans will have proved that they don’t make a difference.

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Paul Craig Roberts

Paul Craig Roberts is the John M. Olin fellow at the Institute for Political Economy, research fellow at the Independent Institute and senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.