The failed Republican revolution
Geoff Metcalf interviews TV commentator, columnist, Robert Novak

By Geoff Metcalf
Whatever happened to the Republican revolution of 1994?

Hailed at the time as a new dawn in American public policy, the GOP's takeover of Congress has not produced the results many activists had anticipated. Robert Novak, one of the most widely seen and read commentators in the United States, has a unique analysis of the years since Newt Gingrich first grasped the gavel in the House of Representatives.

A regular commentator on three separate CNN programs and writer of the syndicated "Inside Report" column, Novak, in his new book, "Completing the Revolution / A Vision for Victory in 2000," offers a 10-point prescription for the Republican Party and discusses its chances for success in the 2000 elections.

WorldNetDaily reporter Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Robert Novak about his book and the changes he says are necessary in American politics.

Question: The "Contract with America" had resonance. It was presumed to herald a return to principles. But, now that the dust has settled, it appears to be more form than substance. Since those heady days, it seems as if the Republicans have not been willing or able to exploit their alleged advantage. Bob, what happened with the revolution?

Answer: We found that the Republican members of Congress who took over in 1994 for the first time in 40 years were really more interested in being in power and enjoying the fruits of majority status than in fulfilling an agenda. What really crystallized that was the fact that they had underestimated President Clinton. When he out-stared them and outmaneuvered them in the shutdown of the government after the first session of the Republican Congress in 1995, they were finished. They had lost their nerve and their courage. What they have been interested in mainly since then is trying to somehow keep the majority and keep those fruits of office.

Q: What good is power if you don't use it?

A: They are professional politicians and you are not. That is why one of the 10 points I make for what ought to be a Republican agenda has the least appeal to Republican politicians -- Democrats hate it -- and that is term limits. Those politicians with self-imposed term limits act entirely differently than those who are there for a career opportunity. I reference in the book Rep. Tom Coburn, an obstetrician from Muskogee, Okla., who has just been hell-on-wheels in trying to cut pork from the budget, against his leadership's wishes. He is trying to get the Republicans not to act like watered-down varieties of the Democrats. Coburn is, regrettably, leaving after only six years because he made a pledge he would only serve three terms. The fact that he was term-limited, that this was not a career for him, made him act differently than his brethren.

Q: I remember being at the last Republican National Convention in San Diego. Frankly, the Republicans came up with a real good party platform. What was distressing was that everyone I talked to, including all the heavyweights, said they either hadn't seen it or weren't interested in what was in it. Those who did read it said they had no intention of following it.

A: That is quite correct. It is very distressing. They have very little interest in issues as such. For the past two years, they have been interested in just getting it out of the way as expeditiously as possible so that they can get on with the election. They want to elect a Republican president who would then carry them in for a fourth consecutive Republican Congress.

Q: You have an amusing anecdote in the book about Haley Barbour, former head of the Republican National Committee. He apparently took you to task because you were not Republican enough. What was that about?

A: One of the Republican leaders said that I was so used to shooting at the enemy that when the Republicans had the ball, I was shooting at them.

He said, "Bob, our team has the ball right now."

To which I replied, "Hey, I got news for you. I'm not on your team."

Q: In the last election, I really wanted to support Bob Dole but, on many issues important to me, there really wasn't any difference between Dole and Clinton. My epiphany was, if we continue to reward Republicans for doing bad, we are going to continue to get offered bad Republicans. How do we get over that hurdle?

A: It is extremely difficult. I say in the book that the Republicans have become "Clintonized," because they feel that since they can't beat the president, they'll join him. In becoming Clintonized, they take interest in small government proposals that pass the test of polls, little bits of government that make people more dependent. You can test them -- not on great big ideas like tax reform, tax reduction, Social Security privatization -- but on many small proposals such as who has the better day care program. At one point in the book, I say that if there is going to be a debate on day care, the Democrats are going to win it.

Q: Bob, in part two of your book, you list 10 items. The Republicans are supposed to want less taxes and smaller government. Is that fiction?

A: That is what they are supposed to want. But, we know that in the last six years they have been in Congress, the government has grown and there has not been a serious tax-cutting effort. In fact, there has never been an attempt to roll back the tax increase of 1993 imposed by President Clinton, which is the largest tax increase in the history of the country.

Q: What are the first two things you mention regarding government finances?

A: The first is the need to cut taxes. God put the Republican Party on earth to cut taxes. If they don't do that, they have no useful function. The second element is an overhaul of the IRS system, the flat tax replacing the graduated tax. But I have seen the difficulties in getting a flat tax and I have come to the conclusion that if you are going to have a radical change in the system, you might as well do away with the income tax entirely and go to a national sales tax.

Q: I agree; I've been saying that for over five years. The one problem I have is determining an appropriate percentage rate for a sales tax. What should it be?

A: It has to be high. All the percentages start with the supposition of no revenue loss. I would like to see it combined with a tax cut because I think we are overtaxed now. I talk to young people, to working people, and I give them an image of a paycheck where the government doesn't take out one cent, not even for Social Security. All of that is coming out of the sales tax. They would be their own taxers.

Q: What I really like about this is that in addition to the windfall from the black market economy, everyone pays taxes when they buy something. And rich people pay more because they buy more.

A: And to have equalization, I propose a rebate for everybody. There would be a rebate of around $3,000 to $4,000 a year per taxpayer. If you're a rich media type, the $4,000 doesn't mean anything. If you're a person near the poverty line, it's a lot of money. It just about takes care of all your sales tax. So, it doesn't have to be a regressive tax. It is certainly less regressive than the payroll tax that funds our Social Security and Medicare.

Q: The issue many people balk at is the elimination of the tax deduction for mortgage interest payments.

A: You don't get that for your interest payments or for your charitable contributions. You're on your own, Buster. You decide what you are going to pay. I really believe the American people are intelligent enough to want to have their own housing -- regardless of whether or not they get an interest deduction. And, I believe they are generous enough to want to give money to charity whether or not they can deduct it.

I just did my taxes and I looked at my charitable contributions and asked, "How much of this would I not give if I didn't get a tax deduction?" And the answer was, I'd give it all. I think that is true for most Americans.

Q: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich came up with a good plan for Social Security but, sadly, the Republicans haven't done anything about implementing it. What is your idea about Social Security?

A: The long-range ideal for Social Security would be that the money, the 11 percent that is taken out right now as a payroll tax, would not go into the treasury where it is put away and really not credited to your account. Instead, it would be privatized -- you would be able to take that fund and invest it. The money would be yours. It would be your retirement account and, if you were to die, you could leave it to your heirs.

Q: Do you agree that the Social Security system is a Ponzi scheme?

A: Absolutely. It is relying on new investors, new people coming on the rolls to be taxed, to make up for the people who are getting the benefit.

Q: Here is the catch-22: how do you effect a transition into the new plan, that many feel makes sense, if those people who have already contributed would be short-changed?

A: That's not hard at all. The people who are on or about to go on Social Security would not be affected at all. It would only affect the people who are a certain distance, say 10 years, from going on the plan. Ask young people if they would like to have control of that money with a limited list of options. Of course they would. They want to have control of the money and watch it grow.

Q: But the reality check is that the government has already spent the money that has been paid into Social Security.

A: Of course. There is no Social Security fund. I'm 69 years old and, when I turned 65, I checked with the government regarding my Social Security fund. There is no fund. All they could tell me was how much I had contributed since 1946, which was $52,000. But that money has gone with the wind.

Q: Campaign finance reform is something everyone talks about but no one, certainly no politician, wants to do anything about.

A: That's right, because the system as it is works to the benefit of the professional politician. Republicans have put themselves in a bad light politically with Sen. Mitch McConnell's intransigence on the issue.

The McCain / Feingold proposal is heavily balanced in favor of the Democrats and the labor unions so the Republicans should come up with a campaign finance reform plan of their own. That is one of the few places where I think Gov. Bush is moving and I think he and Sen. McCain are going to try to strike a deal on that.

I would go further and try to limit campaign contributions to the district or the state from which the person is running -- so we don't have this mad rush out to California and New York by both parties for campaign funds. I think most Americans feel there should be some reform in the system.

Q: You have an interesting suggestion in your book for Republicans about the "Religious Right."

A: I really believe they are going to have to learn to live with religious conservatives because they are the foot troops of the Republican Party, just like the labor unions are the foot troops of the Democratic Party. That is very hard for a lot of Republicans to acknowledge. They come from a different social caste. I call them the country club Republicans.

The only reason the Republicans are roughly in equilibrium with the Democrats right now -- and have been for the last several years -- is that, starting in 1980, religious conservatives became a political force and changed the balance of power. They work. They vote. They contribute. You better learn to get along with them, I say to the old-line Republicans, because you can't get along without them.

Q: How do you counter the apparent and ubiquitous media bias against almost any Republican idea?

A: The problem with the media is they are totally infested with liberals from top to bottom. When I first got to Washington 43 years ago, the reporters were liberal, but the editors were not. Now they are all liberals. Unless you can find some conservative sugar daddies that are going to buy newspapers and run them as conservative papers -- which isn't very likely -- you are going to have to live with it.

The problem is not that the media beats-up on the conservatives but that the conservatives are so weak-kneed and indecisive, retreating in short-order whenever someone turns on them. I believe the government closing down at the end of 1995 was a critical moment.

Q: The Republicans were right on principle and fact.

A: Of course they were right. And Rep. Tom DeLay, the House Majority Whip, who is not a graduate of charm school, pleaded with Speaker Gingrich and others not to capitulate and to hold out. Most of the people didn't care if the government was shut down or not. But they couldn't stand the heat. This is the same club the president has used over the Republican Congress in subsequent budget negotiations. The Republicans underestimated what a tough character Bill Clinton is. He is tough.

Q: Do you feel the impact of the New Media is starting to be felt? There has been a litany of issues that, left to the mainstream media, just wouldn't have been reported.

A: I think that is correct. I think the whole news media is in a formative stage and no one knows where it will end up. There are so many different access points other than newspapers or the three broadcast networks or even the cable networks. There is just an enormous amount of outlets and that's a sign of hope.

Q: I see a parallel between Congress and the mainstream media. Congress seems to have had their territory invaded, first by the executive branch and then the judiciary. Talk radio and the Internet are jobbing the mainstream media on crucial issues.

Are they going to reach a point of diminishing return where they say, "Hey, if we don't start doing what they're doing, we're going to start losing market share"?

A: No one in the media really thinks about that or cares about that very much. They don't think in those terms. They are fat and happy. They are a little different from Congress. Congress lives on either a two-year or six-year lease and they are always a little bit worried, for the wrong reasons, that they will be turned-out into the streets. But, I think the mainstream news media just couldn't care less. They are better paid than they have ever been in the history of the country. They live a fairly comfortable life and the last thing they are worried about is any threat from talk show hosts or the Internet.