Our Peter Wehner and his colleague Michael Gerson have made a valuable contribution to the debate about the future of the Republican Party with their feature in the March issue of COMMENTARY. Their evaluation of the factors that led to the GOP defeat in 2012 seems to be unexceptionable. While there will be some who will disagree with some aspects of their five recommendations for steps to take to revive the party and help expand its appeal, this manifesto is an excellent starting point for a discussion that can and must be held.
While I concur with many of their conclusions, I would like to comment on another aspect of this conversation that ought to be taken into account as conservatives ponder how to adapt to changing circumstances. The cost of ignoring the need to reach out to a broader audience is obvious: electoral defeat. Yet while rebooting the party’s image and its focus is necessary, there is an inherent danger in the process that needs to be understood properly if Republicans are to avoid making a different mistake than that of being stuck in the political paradigms of the 1980s and 1990s. As bad as that might be, becoming the all too reasonable echoes of Democrats on major issues is just as much of a threat to their political future as anything else.
In the midst of an ongoing bitter debate about the sequester budget cuts, the thought of Republicans being too nice may seem comical. The harsh partisan tone that seems to inject itself into virtually every issue makes the possibility of a new era of good feelings in our political world sound more like science fiction than analysis. But lurking behind much of the pushback against the conservative resistance to President Obama’s agenda as well as the anger in some quarters of the GOP about the influence of the Tea Party is an urge not so much to calm the waters as it is to water down the differences between the parties. And it is that instinct that can lead the party down a long path of futility.
While Wehner and Gerson are clear that their suggestions for change must be carried out within a context that keeps Republicans true to their core principles, to listen to some of the talking heads who opine about this subject as well as some of the marginal political figures who support groups like “No Labels,” their focus is not to refocus the party so much as it is to trash conservatism. Their goal seems more about fitting in among the liberal talking heads on CNN and MSNBC than speaking truth to power. Being a liberal’s idea of a conservative is smart strategy for being employed at a major daily or network, but it is not a plan that any party should follow.
Wehner and Gerson do well to recall how Bill Clinton changed the Democrats and Tony Blair transformed Britain’s Labor Party in the 1990s. These success stories may not bring much comfort to conservatives who fear what a centrist GOP would mean for their core issues. But the point here is that it is possible for parties to hold onto their basic identity while becoming more electable.
But there is a different model that is also possible for Republicans to follow that holds no such happy electoral endings.
Democrats dominated American politics from the 1930s to the 1970s. The Franklin Roosevelt coalition of northern liberals and southern bigots eventually collapsed as the public realized the welfare state they had constructed created as many problems as it solved. But until Ronald Reagan came along, the biggest problem for the GOP was not being associated with the legacy of Herbert Hoover. Instead, it was the instinct of so many in the party to try and recast Republicanism in the image of the victorious Democrats.
For far too long, mainstream Republicanism became a function of politicians who saw their task as being to offer the public the Democratic platform minus 10 or 15 percent to show their fiscal prudence. They didn’t so much provide an opposition as an echo that enabled liberals to believe the country’s course was irretrievably set to the left even if there were momentary electoral hiccups such as the election of war hero Dwight Eisenhower on the GOP ticket. These reasonable Republicans were both polite and housebroken in a way that some current conservatives are not. But they were also a party of losers who stood for little that was worth fighting for.
It is that era when liberal and moderate Republicans ruled the roost in the party and routinely cut deals with the seemingly permanent Democratic majorities in the House and Senate that the GOP sympathizers of the “No Labels” crowd seem to invoke when they call for a return to the good old days of bipartisanship. And it was precisely to oppose this spirit of timorous accommodation that William F. Buckley helped found the modern conservative moment. Many so-called moderates now invoke Buckley when they call for weeding out conservatives in order to win more elections. They are right to the extent that the party ought to avoid nominating fools and outliers for winnable Senate seats like Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin. But the idea that winning, even if it means diluting or even discarding conservative principles, is the sole point of conservative politics is the fallacy.
A Republican Party that ceases to be a place where tough conservatives are willing to muss up the hair of their liberal antagonists is not going to win many elections. The “No Labels” bunch may think they know more about the mainstream than the likes of Ted Cruz, but a party that loses its base is no more likely to win than one that can’t appeal to the center. Reasonableness that functions as a curb against principled opposition is a trap that Republicans would do well to avoid.
Republicans became a majority party not by being better liberals than the Democrats but by tapping into the support of most Americans for the values and ideas they stood for. If they are to regain that status, it won’t, as Wehner and Gerson rightly note, be by living in the past or failing to adapt. But it also won’t happen if they forget to be conservatives.