With a hard-left president and Congress just one contested seat away from a filibuster-proof Democrat majority, the present condition of the Republican Party has become the talk of the town. How did this happen? Can the GOP make a comeback? How soon? Does it need to reinvent itself?
Several moderate-to-liberal Republicans—most prominently, Bush speechwriter David Frum, ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Sen. John McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain—claim that the American people “are looking for more government in their life, not less,” but the Republican Party has been hijacked by a cabal of right-wing zealots who, by angrily purging the party of anyone who doesn’t pass a nigh-insurmountable ideological purity test, have set the party on the fast track to irrelevance.
We’ve heard this many times before, usually casting social conservatives as the culprit. Pro-lifers wary of Rudy Giuliani were chastised for putting their pet issue over the good of the country and told they didn’t understand how politics really worked. Conservatives were told “Maverick” John McCain was the only candidate who could beat Barack Obama—and we all know how well that went (indeed, it turns out McCain’s strongest consistent showing in the polls came after the addition of Gov. Sarah Palin to the ticket on August 29). Liberal GOP Senator Arlen Specter became a Democrat last month, complaining that the Republican Party “has moved far to the right” since 1980.
Of course, the GOP actually hasn’t moved to the right—quite the opposite. Jay Nordlinger offers the following rundown of President George W. Bush’s domestic agenda, which the Republican Party largely supported:
Bush and the Republicans spent massively, especially in Bush’s first term. We [National Review] opposed that, mightily. The president’s most cherished initiative, probably, was the Faith-Based Initiative. We opposed that. Then there was his education policy: No Child Left Behind. We opposed that (mainly on grounds that it wrongly expanded the federal role). He had his new federal entitlement: a prescription-drug benefit. We of course opposed that. He imposed steel tariffs—for a season—which we opposed. He signed the McCain-Feingold law on campaign finance—which we opposed. He established a new cabinet department, the Department of Homeland Security. We opposed that. He defended race preferences in the University of Michigan Law School case; we were staunchly on the other side. He of course proposed a sweeping new immigration law, which included what amounted to amnesty. We were four-square against that.
The party’s standard-bearer for the past decade was hardly a conservative, and 2008’s standard-bearer even less so. The Republican National Committee certainly hasn’t been moving to expel liberals like McCain, Specter, Susan Collins, Lincoln Chafee, or Olympia Snowe from the party; in fact, it’s doing the opposite. It’s not as if Republicans got burned pursuing an ambitious social-conservative agenda—Congress’ actions on life issues during the Bush years stopped far short of pursuing an outright abortion ban (as Ann Coulter points out in her recent blockbuster Guilty, even public opposition to Congress’ intervention in the Terri Schiavo case was directly proportional to the dishonesty of the poll question). Americans are becoming more pro-life, and as for gay marriage, it’s not for nothing that many Democrats, including the current president, pay lip service to marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Hmm, what can we infer from this…?
There’s nothing new about the moderation meme, and it won’t be any more effective this time around than it was then. And it’s not based on principle, either—as Karl notes, “if the GOP is in danger of being seen as ideologically narrow and too identified with social issues, it is in no small part because its supposedly ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal’ wing generally has been socially liberal and not fiscally conservative. Having abandoned the core principles on which Republicans are supposed to agree, they would like the social cons to dump the remainder of their principles as well.”
As I’ve said before, it wasn’t conservatism that soured the American people to the GOP over the past 8 years. It was corruption, amnesty, and a White House that refused to reevaluate its Iraq strategy until the electoral winds of 2006 gave it no choice. Late in the 2008 race, the economy took center stage among voters’ concerns, and they saw a feckless Republican who seemed not to have a coherent answer.
So how do we set things right? Dick Morris says moderation is exactly the wrong approach. He reasons that Obama’s domestic agenda is a sure-fire disaster in the making, which voters will be watching, and “Republicans must be seen as a clear alternative—a strong voice for reversal of the harm the president will have inflicted.” However, “voters will cynically conclude that there is no distinction between the parties” if they instead see a meek, moderate GOP that stands for nothing clear or different. Morris is right. Especially considering that both parties are currently tied on economic aptitude, a Republican comeback is entirely possible—if the GOP recognizes what they have to do.
That’s a very big if. The two biggest obstacles to Republican rebounds in 2010 & 2012 are the temptation to buy the moderation fallacy, and the party’s utter lack of articulate spokesmen who can connect with the people (case in point: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s ineffectual reaction to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent attack on the CIA on Fox News). And even if Republicans do win back seats—even regain majorities—what are they going to do with their power? How are they going to ensure lasting Republican victory, and long-term conservative reform?
I believe the answers lie in a drastic reassessment of what the Republican Party and the conservative movement are, or more importantly, are not doing at the federal, state, and local levels. In the days, weeks, and months to come, we’re going to explore the various aspects of the question. Stay tuned.