Commentary Magazine


Not The Right Way

There is something misguided in the well-meaning attempts by Washington insiders and pundits to sit down, think real hard and re-invent conservatism. They do this in a bubble — with no real voters there, no actual candidates or office holders and no events other than their party’s defeat to react to. That’s generally not how good decisions get made or consensus reached. I’m not saying it is not an interesting exercise or productive at some level, but that’s not, I think, how it — the “it” being recovery of a viable Republican Party — is likely to come about.

For starters, it might be helpful to talk to Republicans who are successful. There are not tons of them, but there are some in Governors’ and state legislative houses and even in Washington among the survivors of the election of 2008. How was it that Norm Coleman ran ten points ahead of the top of the ticket? Why did Bobby Jindal get elected and how is he now governing? These are the people who have had to appeal to voters, build a consensus and govern/legislate. Rather than the punditocracy telling them and other Republicans what to do, perhaps it should be the other way around.

Next, these fellows seem to have the right idea. If you build it –an active new media organizing, fundraising and grassroots apparatus — they will come. Or at least you will find them (the new voters and not-so-enthusiastic-about-the-last eight-years voters). This is the type of productive party building which helped deliver a victory for the Democrats by bringing in new voters and setting up a state-of-the-art social and communications network.

And finally, like it or not, the party out of power is most clearly defined by what the party in power does and what issues arise. If President Obama goes after free speech and secret ballots, then it’s the civil liberties party. If the President takes Barney Frank up on the suggestion to dismantle the military, then it’s the security party. If the President hikes taxes, throws up protectionist barriers and crushes small business, then it’s the economic opportunity party. Political parties that are relevant take their cue from what is happening in the real world. So the Republicans need to look out the window to figure out which way to steer the car.

If you put real voters, grassroots activists (not the leaders of Washington based groups), office holders, young conservatives, successful candidates and some smart pundits together you might get somewhere. But left to their own devices the latter aren’t likely to stumble upon the solution to the GOP’s woes. And if they did, no one would pay much notice.

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