- The Washington Times
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The GOP base may not be overly excited about its early crop of White House hopefuls, but with one calling for an end to the Federal Reserve, some open to the legalization of marijuana and others pushing to scrap the tax code, it’s hard to say they aren’t delivering in spades for those craving real change in Washington.

While the early contenders for the 2012 Republican Party’s nomination all seem to be employing some version of the “change” mantra that helped propel President Obama into office, it’s the people already written off by the Republican establishment who’ve truly embodied the message. That quirky pack includes a couple of libertarian-minded iconoclasts - Rep. Ron Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson - and a reality-TV star, Donald Trump.

Mr. Paul’s long to-do list includes getting rid of the Federal Reserve, yanking the troops out of Afghanistan and ending foreign aid. The Texas Republican also wants to bar the federal government from defining marriage or getting involved in a state’s ability to legalize prostitution or hard drugs, including cocaine and heroin.

Mr. Johnson also wants to bring the troops home now and is turning heads for his qualified pro-choice stance on abortion, while scoring kudos from marijuana advocates for talking openly about his marijuana use and arguing that states should be able to tax and regulate the sale of the drug.

And Mr. Trump, who has yet to take part in a debate, claims that China should face taxes on imports until it stops manipulating its currency and that the U.S. should seize Iraq’s oil fields to pay itself back for the cost of the war.

Others, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, and Herman Cain, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and radio talk-show host, want to wipe away the current tax system and replace it with a national sales tax, known as a “Fair Tax.”

Though some of the ideas appear to fall outside the mainstream of the Republican Party, many share the common goal of pushing back against the perceived overreach of the federal government - a notion that helped the GOP seize control of the House and gain six Senate seats in last fall’s election.

“The ideas do demonstrate how strong the anti-government sentiment is within the Republican Party,” said Darrell M. West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “Many members of the party don’t want the government intervening in any aspect of people’s lives.”

But it’s unclear just how long these ideas can survive in a presidential primary, particularly when most people are focused on broader notions of reducing the trillion-dollar deficits, the $14.3 trillion national debt and the high unemployment rate.

“There is a general consensus that not many creative or common-sense solutions have come out of the debates,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant. “Much more must be done to grab the attention of voters.”

Asked about some of the proposals that have been floated, recently retired Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, said its not unusual for the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation primary to attract a large field of prospective candidates. “Many of them have been fairly far out,” he said.

“What you have is a bunch of fringe candidates with wacky ideas making presentations and having the forum to do that because you haven’t had many of the strong, rational and more substantive people to formally engage and declare yet,” said Mr. Gregg, adding that it’s easy to separate those ideas that have legs from those that don’t.

For instance, he said, few people are taking Mr. Trump seriously, and that Mr. Johnson’s potential bid shows how someone “can participate for a while, at least until they’re eliminated by the electorate - which will unquestionably happen in his case.”

At the same time, Mr. Gregg and others say the push to replace the income-tax system with a national sales tax could continue to be part of the national conversation, because tax reform is a hot topic on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are searching for ways to simplify the system, reduce tax rates and broaden the tax base. In fact, two identical bills have been introduced to repeal the income tax and enact a 23 percent national sales tax.

“I think it comes down to people are tired of the same old, same old,” said Corey Lewandowski, the New Hampshire director of Americans for Prosperity. “I think the people are saying, ‘Look, we have to come up with something different. The current system isn’t working,’ [“]

Mr. Lewandowski also defended several of the ideas being floated, including Mr. Paul’s belief that states should be able to legalize drugs if they choose and his plan to cut government spending by 50 percent, arguing it shouldn’t be cast aside as too far outside the mainstream.

“Potentially, people think of those candidates as fringe because they are so forward-thinking,” he said. “When we were going to be the first man on the moon, I bet you a whole bunch of people never thought it could be done.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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