December 2, 2008

From the ground up

To succeed, Republicans must return to conservative roots

The reports of the demise of the Republican Party have, sadly, not been overstated. As could be expected in the aftermath of any major defeat, the political leadership is in disarray, the base is dejected, and independents are edging away from a discredited brand. In many ways, the Republican Party is looking a lot like GM or Ford these days: hemorrhaging support because of an attachment to a traditional way of doing business that simply does not work. And just like GM and Ford, the right thing to do isn’t to bail out the Republican Party with excuses about being victimized by events—it’s time to restructure from the ground up.

The first order of business is to identify what the voters have rejected and what they have not. On November 4, the voters showed us that they are sick and tired of the big-government paternalism offered by the Bush administration. This includes the enormous increases in prescription drug benefits Bush signed into law in his first term, the explosion in military spending and government surveillance to prosecute the War on Terror, and the emphasis on faith-inspired public policy such as abstinence-only sex education in our AIDS–relief programs abroad. This dissatisfaction with the paternalist state came to a head with the $700 billion bailout proposal that smacked of corporate favoritism and arrogance. Unsurprisingly, most Americans opposed the bailout for precisely these reasons.

The good news for the Republican Party is that these discredited policies all represent deviations from traditional conservative principles. Unbeknownst to most of the electorate, there has been an ideological civil war growing within the Republican Party for years. Libertarian-leaning Republicans have been pulling their hair out for the last eight years as the Bush administration continued to grow the size of government, expand entitlement programs and encroach on civil liberties. While those dedicated to shrinking government have been wandering in the wilderness for the last decade (and flirting with supporting third-way Democrats like Obama), the time has come for these members of the Republican family to come back and lead a conservative renaissance. With the “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush administration permanently discredited, the Republican Party has a remarkable opportunity to remake itself.

The process has already begun. Some, like David Brooks, predict that while the “traditionalists” inside the Party advocating strong adherence to social values and hawkish foreign policy might win out in the short term, “reformers” looking for a more moderate image of the GOP will eventually prevail as election losses mount. Other advocates of reform argue for de-emphasizing social values that tend to alienate independent voters and instead focusing on other fundamental aspects of the conservative platform, such as limited government, personal freedom, and fiscal responsibility. This seems to be the emerging view of young conservatives, who generally have more progressive social views but are more orthodox on civil liberties and fiscal restraint than traditional conservatives. As young conservatives come of age in these uncertain times, a new direction—and a new life—for the GOP seems all but certain.

The significant defeat imposed on the Republican Party in the 2008 elections, coupled with the death-spiraling economy, the massive spending projects proposed by the incoming administration, and the prospect of a one-party government has given the conservative grass roots a new sense of urgency. Perhaps the most encouraging news is the likely election of Michael Steele to lead the Republican National Committee, who has vowed to destroy the “country club” mentality of the current party leadership. If he is successful, President-elect Obama won’t find the Republicans so easy to beat the second time around.

Jennifer Tanaka is a Master’s candidate in the Committee for International Relations. She contributes to The New Republican, a blog aimed at reinventing the Republican platform.