GOP at Crossroads

January 2, 2007

Rank-and-file Republicans are justifiably focused on their party’s potential slate of presidential candidates in 2008, but I think they ought to be more concerned with the more fundamental issue of the direction of the party itself.

I agree with Newt Gingrich that the Republican brand is in trouble. People no longer associate the Republican Party with fiscal restraint or limited government. What differences there are between the parties — and they are still substantial — are thought to spring more from partisanship than ideology and principle.

To motivate its alienated conservative base, which is the only avenue to resurrecting the Republican majority — and to good governance — the party must recapture its ideological underpinnings. It cannot be all things to all people nor significantly dilute its agenda without losing its core — its soul.

Country club Republicans, of course, disagree with this prescription and will urge the party to accept the “reality” of big government and move to the center, insisting that the only path to reconnecting with voters is to compromise with liberals.

These Rockefeller types have been around since before Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy, and they long for the good old days when they were the dominant force in the party. After all, when they were in charge, liberals never thought they lacked sophistication and nuance.

With Reagan at the helm there was little doubt what the party stood for — and why. His policies emanated from a Judeo-Christian worldview and were therefore consistent and cohesive.

Since he left office, the party, except for the 1994 Congress, has lost its focus. President Bush 41 moved the party away from Reagan conservatism, promising a “kinder and gentler” approach. Many interpreted this as a tacit admission that conservatism lacks kindness and gentleness.

President George W. Bush sent mixed signals concerning his allegiance to Reagan conservatism. On the one hand he strongly hinted that he identified more with Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism than his father’s. On the other, he promoted “compassionate conservatism,” which some viewed as his effort to distance himself from traditional conservatism.

In office President Bush has been admirably conservative on such big issues as taxes, the judiciary, the war and social issues. In other major areas, like immigration, discretionary domestic spending, education and the prescription drug entitlement, he has greatly disappointed conservatives.

Apart from whether you agree with all or part of the president’s policy mix, it’s hard to deny that under his stewardship the conservative brand, like the Republican brand, has sustained a substantial setback.

Not only has conservatism lost its definition, it has been blamed — ironically — for the problems that have resulted from the GOP’s departure from it. That is, conservatism has sustained a black eye because a president and Congress associated with it have deviated from it.

This is not to fault President Bush for this, since I don’t believe he has been dishonest about who he is and what he stands for. But it is to emphasize that for Republicans to catch a second wind they must return to their roots.

This will be far easier said than done, given the conflicting factions within the Republican Party (and the conservative movement) and the absence of truly conservative leaders in Congress or in the 2008 GOP presidential lineup.

Reagan conservatives took a blow when Gov. George Allen imploded before our eyes and his presidential aspirations evaporated. Now they are faced with a slate of presidential contenders whose frontrunners, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, are conservative on but a limited range of issues, and whose others appear unelectable or of questionable conservative authenticity.

Republicans need to nominate the closest candidate they have to an electable Reagan conservative. But as a condition precedent to that, they need to redefine themselves as the party of conservatism, which will be nearly impossible in the next two years without the leadership of President Bush in that direction.

But I sense that he is considering a sort of triangulation strategy, where in order to pass legislation, he might wedge out conservative Republicans and make deals with Democrats on issues like immigration, taxes and entitlements.

If that happens, he will not only fail to solidify a positive legacy (because such compromise legislation will necessarily be deeply flawed from a conservative perspective), but he will deeply wound his party and further alienate it from the base.

Though the opportunistic mainstream media always encourage bipartisanship, civility and collegiality as ends in themselves, no one should care with how well Washington politicians get along at their cocktail parties.

President Bush should press for market reforms across the board, from tax policy, to reforming Social Security and health care. If he fails, at least he will have redefined the difference in the parties and preserved the issues for the 2008 campaign.