If you want to see people who are afraid of an honest policy debate in America today, visit a college campus. This year alone, the left’s fear of discussion was on display at Smith College, where IMF head Christine Lagarde withdrew from giving a commencement speech, Rutgers University, where Condoleezza Rice was set to speak, and Brandeis University, which withdrew plans to give Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree.
Informed and honest debate is a good thing, and the debate playing out in American politics over the future of the Republican Party is a good one for conservatives. It will make us all better.
It does a disservice to the debate, to pretend it doesn’t exist, which is what’s so confusing about an exchange I had with The Washington Post’s Bob Costa last week on PBS’ “Charlie Rose Show.” Bob—a good reporter who follows Congress closer than many of his peers—claimed the debate within the Republican Party is largely one about “temperament.”
He’s not the only one to believe this. Even in his own paper, The Washington Post, we see statements such as, “The reality, however, is there was never any significant ideological divide between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party.”
This just isn’t the case.
Let’s start with the current fight over the Export-Import Bank. Commonly referred to as “Boeing’s Bank” because nearly 70-percent of its loan guarantees last year went to Boeing, the Export-Import Bank is the purest form of corporate cronyism in Washington. In addition to Boeing, its loans go to large corporations such as Caterpillar and now-bankrupt Solyndra and benefit foreign companies owned by Russian oligarchs and Australia’s richest person.
It’s tough to think of a better example of a debate over ideology than the Export-Import Bank. On one side, supporters such as Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., argue Ex-Im stimulates consumption in foreign countries and therefore increases American exports. On the other side, opponents such as Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., recognize government has no business being involved in an activity the private sector can do, and is doing, itself.
“One of the biggest problems with government is they go and take hard-earned money so others do things that the private sector can do,” McCarthy has said. “That’s what the Ex-Im Bank does.”
Ex-Im is not the only ideological divide that exists in the Republican Party today. One of the most divisive fights of the last few years was the reauthorization of corporate farm subsidies. For decades, an unholy alliance existed between Republicans who support taxpayer dollars being used to support farm subsidies and Democrats who seek to expand our nation’s food stamp program. This alliance stands in stark ideological contrast from those conservatives in the Republican Party who sought to reform both programs.
One of the easiest ways to roll back federal overreach is to focus on the Department of Transportation. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., has introduced the Transportation Empowerment Act, which would take the federal highway program and return it to the states. Then, local leaders—rather than government bureaucrats heavily lobbied by special interests in our far distant capital—could make decisions about what roads to build. This is not a disagreement about temperament; it’s a healthy policy debate.
Keep these examples in mind next time somebody says the debate in the GOP is one about “temperament” or “tactics.” It’s not. The debate is whether the GOP should be the party of free enterprise and limited government or a party that delivers government favoritism to GOP-aligned special interests. Forgive grassroots supporters for not being enthusiastic about the hard work of walking precincts if the choice is the latter.