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GOP Needs Neither Possums Nor RINOs

Earlier, Alana noted that Mitt Romney’s “indignant tone” concerning Rick Santorum’s attempt to get conservative Democrats to cross over and vote for him in the Michigan primary may embody the concerns David Brooks wrote about today in the New York Times. In his column, Brooks demanded that moderate Republicans — or as conservatives refer to them, RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only — fight back against right-wing “protesters” whom he believes are destroying the GOP and ruining its chances of beating Barack Obama. Brooks reduces the narrative of the last 50 years of American political history to a constant struggle between the grass roots and the elites in which the latter have been consistently routed. He believes this is largely the result of fear on the part of party professionals who have chosen to play possum and not fight back against the influence of people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Brooks is right that Republicans appear to be fumbling what had once seemed an excellent chance of unseating an unpopular incumbent. But he’s wrong to blame it on the unwillingness of moderates and party elites to fight back and educate the rebellious hoi polloi who are too stupid to listen to the advice of their betters.

Laments for the extinction of “Rockefeller Republicans” tell us nothing about what conservatives should be doing. What the GOP needs are not more RINOs or right-leaning Washington establishment types like Richard Lugar (whom Brooks lauds but is in fact, a more reliable indicator of conventional wisdom on most issues than any liberal establishment pundit), but leaders who care about ideas and have the ability to convince the nation to get behind them and then govern accordingly. It is the absence of such persons in the presidential race that is the GOP’s problem in 2012.

The problem with the Republicans this year is their leadership choices have been politicians who were either unelectable outliers or lacked a credible conservative vision and/or principles. That means Republicans are now reduced to choosing between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Both men have their strengths, and certainly the latter is far more electable than the former, but Republicans do have a right to ask themselves why it is they had to settle for such a choice. But the fault for this dilemma cannot be laid at the door of the Tea Party or social conservatives.

The GOP need not be the slave to the Tea Party any more than Ronald Reagan was the servant of the various conservative rebel factions that united in 1980 to ensure the party would not slip back into the hands of the remnants of its once powerful establishment. What is needed is someone whose commitment to conservative ideas on governance is sufficiently passionate to harness the protesters’ enthusiasm while also putting forth a credible plan to govern the nation. If Mitt Romney has failed so far to do so, it is not because he is bowing down to the false idol of Tea Party activism, but because too few believe he is serious about governing as a conservative rather than the sort of pragmatic compromiser of principle that Brooks seems to want.

Let’s remember the “Rockefeller Republicans” weren’t merely another brand of conservative but outright liberals who had to be sent packing if the GOP was to present an actual alternative to left-wing patent nostrums that had been foisted on the country. The “moderates” who were wiped out by initial conservative uprisings were a similar obstacle to the creation of the conservative party that has won five national elections in the last three decades. If you want to know what the party would look like if this had not happened, you need only to look at Arlen Specter, the turncoat senator from Pennsylvania whose name has come up in the scrum between Romney and Santorum. For all of the current party’s ills, a Republican Party populated largely by unprincipled trimmers and place servers like Specter is what the conservative revolution has avoided. That is an achievement that should not be deprecated.

Populist lowbrow politicians and pundits such as Palin and Beck have always been with us and always will. They will never be able to completely control a major party such as the GOP. But in the absence of more credible conservative leaders, their influence increases. Yet rather than fight a colonial anti-insurgency campaign against the Tea Party as Brooks recommends, what Republicans need is a rebel leader who is ready to govern. People like that, such as Paul Ryan and Chris Christie, do exist. But in their absence, the GOP will have to make do and hope for the best.



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