May 19, 2009
Contrary to popular reports by Democrats and members of the chattering class, the Republican Party is not dead—not yet.
In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, however, the GOP is hemorrhaging badly. It is dazed and confused. It is moribund, but it is not dead yet. Whether the Party of Lincoln will recover remains to be seen. Its prognosis is, at best, guarded.
Having had their heads handed to them in the last election, and finding it difficult to take on a popular president, Republicans are casting about trying to find a new direction. But news of their demise is premature. Pundits would do well to recall that in aftermath of the 2004 elections Karl Rove was predicting a Republican hegemony that would last for 50 years. What goes around comes around.
Forks in the Road
Do Republicans need to reinvent themselves? Some say yes. Many are calling for a "rebranding" of the Republican Party, as if the party's woes can be relieved by a new marketing strategy. Others—including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush—say the GOP needs to get over its Reagan "nostalgia," implying that the achievements of the Reagan years are "so yesterday." John McCain stresses the need for "inclusiveness," while others advocate evicting groups deemed unpopular in the Obama Era from the Big Tent—namely, social and religious conservatives. If the party pursues these courses of action, it is doomed to extinction.
The Root of the Problem
The Republican Party doesn't need a makeover. Its problem is not that the principles for which it has historically stood are out of vogue. The problem is that its leaders did not live or govern by these principles. The party of fiscal conservatism became a profligate. Under George W. Bush, Republicans ratcheted spending to new highs, rewarding favored special interests with unprecedented giveaways of taxpayer money. The party of traditional values abandoned those values, embraced graft and greed (a la Jack Abramoff, et al.), and tried to conceal the peccadilloes of its in-house pedophile, Mark Foley. The party of limited government embraced "big government conservatism" (an oxymoron that only morons could conceive of). Voters reacted with revulsion. Americans hate hypocrisy, and they threw the hypocrites out.
To those urging a new course, one would do well to ask just which parts of the Reagan legacy should Republicans now eschew? Less government? Lower taxes? Renewed prosperity? The collapse of Communism? Those achievements were the product of principle; they were not the fruit of pragmatism. They resulted in unprecedented popularity for the man that lived by them, and for his party as well.
As for McCain's "inclusiveness," that's code for "Don't stick your neck out on the tough issues. Don't grasp the nettle. Don't cast a vision for what is right. Create confusion about where you really stand on difficult issues. That way, maybe you won't alienate voter groups whose positions differ from your own and maybe, just maybe, you can cobble enough votes together to win." Look what that approach got Republicans in the last election.
And as for the "big tent," let's be honest. Republican Blue Bloods have never been comfortable under the same roof with the Republican base. They've always looked at social conservatives as people to be tolerated (barely), but not embraced. Truth be told, the Blue Bloods would rather live in a Log Cabin than in a tent big enough to include pesky social conservatives.
The idea that social conservatives are to blame for Republicans' current crisis does not hold water. The GOP's systematic abandonment of core conservative principles is at the root of its current irrelevance. History shows that successful Republican leaders—like Ronald Reagan—stuck by traditional conservative values. They believed, as Mr. Reagan famously observed, that government is all too often the problem rather than the solution. They understood that a just society is only as robust as the virtue of its citizens. They did not doubt that the Judeo-Christian world view animated our country's founding. The Republican Party's actions in the last eight years stand in stark contrast to these ideals. Following the dictum of Bush's Brain—Boy Genius Karl Rove—Republican leadership shied away from doing the right thing, abandoned principles in favor of pragmatism, and followed the path of least resistance. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Way Ahead
In order to regain relevancy, the GOP must once again become the party of principle. It must once again select leaders willing to tackle the hard issues with wisdom, eloquence, confidence, and goodwill. The party must be willing to stick its neck out and stand by what it believes. Attempting to cater to every interest group is a losing strategy. Compromising a clear message in favor of artful ambiguity is not how the GOP became a great party. The American people want resolve and integrity. They want decency and class.
Ronald Reagan exemplified these traits, which is why he is revered and emulated by devotees of American conservatism. Mr. Reagan, the Great Communicator, was a great leader because he projected strength, confidence, and calm certitude. He knew what he stood for and communicated his party's ideals to the American people in a clear and winsome way. He was a person of goodwill, but only fools mistook that quality for a lack of will. He was not called the "Happy Warrior" for nothing.
Today's GOP leadership would do well to follow Mr. Reagan's example. It's the only road to reclaiming the mantle as the party of ideas—ideas derived from a coherent conservative tradition: protecting innocent life, projecting a strong defense, limiting government, expanding freedom, lowering taxes, keeping government off of the taxpayer's back and out of his pocket, valuing families. These are the ideals that made America great.
For the Republicans to recover their vitality, they must reclaim the principles that are at the heart of the Republican tradition. They must return the party to its roots. If they fail to do so, the voters will inevitably conclude that the Grand Old Party is not worth saving.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of "Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty" He is also Chairman of the Center for a Just Society. For more articles and resources from Mr. Connor and the Center for a Just Society, go to www.centerforajustsociety.org