Republicans Should Blow Up Party, Not Marriages

June 30 (Bloomberg) — The question isn't why Republicans like John Ensign or Mark Sanford are having marital crises. It is why they are choosing to have them now.

One gets the sense that the lawmakers have decided that scandal now is relatively cheap, at least versus a scandal later. After all, 2009 isn't a year when Republicans are going to win much anyhow. By the next election they and the voters will have sorted out what to make of revelations of hypocrisy and be ready to move on.

The Republicans are wrong. To make 2009 the year of GOP personal scandal is to risk wiping out the party for at least four years, maybe a decade. The Grand Old Party needs a new credo. New credos are best forged in non-election years. So instead of blowing up their marriages, Republicans might try blowing up their party platform.

The single most-profitable franchise for the Republican Party is growth, the kind of growth that sustains the relative competitiveness of the U.S. Instead of being the GOP, the Republicans should become the POG, the Party of Growth.

This growth franchise is Republicans' for the taking because the Democratic Party leadership is in hot pursuit of other franchises — the green biz, civil rights and their dearest goal, more government health care.

The growth franchise is also valuable because a lot of people, including many Democrats, recognize that a growth agenda is the only way to preclude a crisis worse than the current one. That crisis is the currency crisis that will occur if the world no longer wants to invest here.

How to make the GOP a POG? Four suggestions:

Stop Moralizing

— Junk the social conservatism. There's always been an inherent contradiction in aggressive moralizing by Republicans. On the one hand, the party stands for federalism — asking Washington to do less. On the other hand the party can't resist moralizing, even when it means expansion of the federal government. Witness the federal foray into schooling that was No Child Left Behind.

On top of this policy split comes the personal hypocrisy. There are some who argue that voters like a sinning politician who reforms in prime time better than a politician who never betrays his family at all. After all, the former makes for better television. Still, every hour of public tears is an hour of new policy lost.

What next? The energy that used to go into moralizing can go into fighting for policies and laws to sustain that relative competitiveness. One such policy is a commitment to a stable dollar. Already, Ron Paul looks a lot less wacky than he did four years ago. The GOP can and should make a commitment to hardening our currency.

Can't Outgrow Deficit

— Take budget-balancing seriously. Gone are the days of Ronald Reagan's Panglossian promise that we'll outgrow the deficits. We can't, without intense budget cuts. This is a negative message, but one Americans may be more willing to heed once unemployment crosses into the double digits. Rahm Emanuel is right — a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Conservatives should use this crisis to balance the budget.

Entitlement reform is part of that. One reason it is a shame that Sanford, South Carolina's governor, is retreating from GOP leadership is that he knows more than most of his colleagues about Social Security. In the 1990s, as a congressman, Sanford put forward a proposal to re-jigger the pension formula that would have erased almost all of Social Security's shortfalls.

— Push for growth-oriented tax cuts, the kind that make foreign businesses want to expand here. Capital gains cuts are important. So is improving the relative competitiveness of U.S. firms abroad, rather than undermining it, as the proposed changes to regulations on deferrals would do. Personal income taxes and estate taxes should be lowered or stay low.

Investment Destination

The nonprofit world is reeling after President Barack Obama said he didn't see the logic in letting higher earners keep their full deductions when they make charitable gifts. Budget-balancing and tax cuts sound mutually exclusive, but they are not if the U.S. pulls a Margaret Thatcher, by making the U.S. an investment destination by pinning up a big sign: "Open for Business."

Philosophically it is important that Republicans draw a distinction between productive growth and junk gross domestic product. Productive growth can entail some government projects — the adding of nuclear plants, for instance. Short-term jobs programs, or incremental development programs for green causes at the state level — not to mention $8,000 tax credits for new homeowners — are junk GDP. They won't attract the kind of steady international capital we need for recovery.

Bondholder Rights

— Stand up for property rights. The kind of rescue that neglects holders of secured debt in favor of union friendship — as in recent auto deals — sends a signal to all investors, abroad and here: bonds are uncertain. The GOP shouldn't be for rescues. It should be for rights.

In even contemplating such grand shifts, Republicans have allies they may not fully appreciate. Those allies are international markets. They don't vote. But just as markets have punished Obama for neglecting growth and generating uncertainty, they will reward the GOP for doing the opposite.

If all the GOP is doing is looking to start somewhere, it might want to start with thinking about jettisoning the social conservatism from its program. The GOP ails. Long live the POG.

(Amity Shlaes, author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression," is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2009 Bloomberg

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