The GOP still can embrace its roots

Nov 12 2012 - 12:36pm

In the penultimate scene of the 1972 movie "The Candidate," the character played by Robert Redford turns to his political consultant after his surprise victory and says, "What do we do now?" Soon after, he is mobbed by well-wishers and dragged away, never getting an answer to his doubt-filled query.

Demoralized Republicans have been uttering that same line since Tuesday's devastating loss. It wasn't just that the GOP failed to win the White House. In race after race, in the House as well as the Senate, in all regions and nearly every demographic, the party went backward.

True, the election outcome was a rejection of Mitt Romney, but it was also a rejection of a political party that for many has become incoherent at best and contradictory at worst. Doubts plague the GOP. It is no exaggeration to call them "severe."

The Republican Party has more cultural conflicts than the Habsburg Empire. As MSBNC's Joe Scarborough observed after the election, the only thing that bound the GOP together for the past four years was an aversion to President Barack Obama. But opposition is not a governing ideology, and unfocused anger is never a substitute for relevant conservative ideas.

There is no greater example of the contradictions within the national GOP than its position on same-sex marriage. This summer, Republicans put a plank in their convention platform calling for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Meanwhile, Obama said that while he favors gay marriage, it is up to each state to decide what to do about the issue. It is not a federal matter, in the president's view.

Obama now apparently holds the more correct conservative position on the marriage issue. If the opposition party's leader understands federalism better than the GOP does, is it any surprise that the Republican Party finds itself adrift, asking, "What do we do now?"

Since Obama's first days in office, the GOP leadership has been content with the idea that opposing him is enough. It has saved Republicans from the uncomfortable task of facing up to what the party really stands for.

If Ronald Reagan, Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater were still living, they would be shaking their heads in disbelief at the party's devolution. They gave the modern GOP its intellectual and political underpinnings: federalism (limited federal government) and fusionism (the notion that business interests and social interests are united in their aversion to big government). Although those concepts weren't always an easy sell to the American people, together they formed a philosophy that put its trust in the individual over institutions.

But then came the Big Government Republicans of the George W. Bush administration. They preached a philosophy of "too big to fail," surely one of the most frightening phrases - at least to conservatives - ever coined. Forget all that stuff about conservatism, they said. We have a new brand of ideology - which, ironically, was an old brand of Republicanism that Goldwater once dismissed as "dime store New Deal."

The midterm elections of 2006 saw a rejection of Big Government Republicanism, as polls showed an astonishing number of voters from the right going for the Democrats, if only to punish a Republican Party they no longer recognized. Modern American conservatism has always drawn its inspiration from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that authority should routinely be challenged and that power flows upward rather than downward. But for some time now, the GOP has been going in the other direction. Indeed, by the 2008 elections, voters were choosing between two big-government parties.

Since the time of the New Deal, the Democratic Party has been organized around the philosophy of justice. And since Reagan remade the GOP beginning in early 1981, the party had been organized around the concept of freedom. That year, when the newly elected Reagan pitched a plan for tax cuts to a group of conservatives, he said the proposal was intended to reorder the relationship between the citizen and the government. It wasn't just a tax cut - it was part of a philosophy.

What used to be a contest of ideas, however, has disintegrated into the equivalent of a schoolyard name-calling contest. Conservatives, if they think their ideas are better, should not fear articulating them while also respecting the ideas of liberals. At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing: a better, more prosperous and freer country for ourselves and our children. The only question is the best way to get there.

The GOP is hardly positioned to have that debate. What is left of the national party is a smoking hole in the ground with millions, possibly billions, of dollars wasted and establishmentarians lashing out against the very conservatives who helped build the party. Because Romney never understood conservatism, he could never explain to swing voters how a limited-government philosophy could make the country more secure and their lives better.

Today, the GOP does not know what it wants to be. It has a true identity crisis. The party never had that important conversation with itself after John McCain's defeat in 2008, instead telling itself that opposition to the Democrats was enough - and not offering a competing philosophy. Hence the tea party, frustrated with the GOP's ruling elites, stepped into the vacuum with its own movement.

There has already been lots of chatter from elites about the coming fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and the need to move to the middle of American politics. This suggests that Romney was punished by the electorate for holding firm to conservative convictions. But that misreads the problem: For too many voters, Romney seemed to have no political convictions at all.

What is really needed?

The first step has to be a recognition that the world and the nation have changed. This does not mean that Republicans should alter their principles but rather that they should reengage with a philosophy of freedom, individual rights and individual privacy.

After Tuesday's defeat, much has been written about the country's shifting demographics and how the GOP cannot hope to win with a shrinking white male majority. But the Republicans cannot become a mini-Democratic Party. Freedom and individual empowerment have long been attractive - Republicans need to get back to them. Demographics may be destined to change, but a consistent message of individuality and privacy is appealing to all people from all walks of life.

The GOP also needs to present federalism as the powerful and liberating idea that it is. A better name might be "localism." Setting ideology aside, the United States is now the third-most-populous country in the world; it's vast and diverse. It is simply impractical to try to govern this expansive nation from one corrupt city by the Potomac River.

Reagan called for the dismantling of the Great Society, along with the Departments of Energy and Education, because he believed that they didn't work, were counterproductive and improperly seized power from individuals, local leaders and state officials. But conservative populism should not stop there. If we rightly fear all concentrations of power, then the first order of business must be to break up the five big banks. The rationale is simple: Since the banks used illicit means via lobbyists and government to acquire such power, then government can be used to undo their ill-gotten authority.

Wall Street is too fearsome and corrupt for anyone's good. We should find a way to create 50 Wall Streets so that money can stay in the states, and corruption can be kept to a minimum and law enforcement to a maximum. In the era of the Internet - which empowers the individual - can there be any doubt that scrutiny of local Wall Streets would keep bankers and brokers on their toes?

Republicans also need to bite the bullet on Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. It was a noble mistake, not to mention antithetical to conservative philosophy. Does anyone really believe that Washington has the corner on education wisdom and that the people of Nashville or Atlanta or Boston cannot run their own schools?

And since a national solution to immigration cannot be found in Washington, why not try a more local approach? If Franklin Roosevelt could trust local draft boards to produce the men necessary to fight World War II, would it not be possible for local immigration boards, comprising neighborhood officials, to rule with firmness and compassion on cases of illegal immigrants?

The key to a real resurgent Republicanism lies in the past. Reagan used to say: "I do not want to go back to the past. I want to go back to the past way of facing the future."

Like Milton Friedman, conservatives need to remember that the greatest threats to individual freedom and entrepreneurship come from big government and big corporations. The first rule of the bureaucracy, after all, is to protect the bureaucracy. Fighting big government and big Wall Street will not be easy, but doing so will help pave the way for a coherent brand of Republicanism based on freedom and the individual.

Shirley, author of two books on Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns, including "Rendezvous With Destiny," is president of Shirley & Banister, an Alexandria, Va.-based public affairs and communications firm.

 

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