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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Arlen Specter Epitomizes the Republican Conundrum

About a week prior to the tea parties, I was discussing the protests with a friend of mine. He continued to interchange the term Republican and conservative as though they were the same. I finally had to correct him and remind him that Republicans stopped being conservatives a long time ago. This piece by Scott Rasmussen illustrates the conundrum perfectly. The Republicans slowly moved away from their conservative principles until over the last eight years, they zoomed away from them.

It's very easy to understand where the Republican party needs to go, but much more difficult to figure out how to get there. The party functions right when it is a party of true conservative principles: socially conservative, strict constructionist judicially, fiscally conservative, free market, free trade, border hawks, and national security hawks. The problem becomes how to get the party to govern that way. Starting in 2001, the party held every branch of government. What did we get? We got the centrally planned NCLB, prescription drug benefit, comprehensive immigration reform, McCain/Feingold, and budget deficits till the eye can see. In other words, as I learned from then HUD Secretary, Steve Preston, it's easy to say you're a small government conservative, but much more difficult to govern that way. (Preston claimed to be for small government and then proceeded to list a laundry of government initiatives he championed in six months as HUD secretary)

Once you get into power, the allure of power takes hold. That accounted for much of the Republican's power. Their absolute power corrupted absolutely. Rather than governing as conservatives they governed as corrupt politicians. They began to trade favors, make promises, and this all lead to out of control, wasteful, and corrupt government. The second problem is that it's easy to say you're a conservative, but then you have to pass something. Given legislative rules it's very rare for one party to be able to do anything without the input of at least a few members of the opposite party. Well, when you compromise with moderates and liberals, the legislation ceases to be conservative. That's how we get McCain/Feingold, McCain/Kennedy, the prescription drug benefit, etc. Sure reaching out sounds like a great idea in theory. That is until you explain to your base why border enforcement is being combined with amnesty.

The third conundrum is who makes up the party. The true base was at the tea parties. They are the purist conservative: fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, border hawks, and national security hawks. This rigid platform is in constant tension with the big tent. Every political party needs to reach out but eventually that reach out winds up with an Arlen Specter. Here's someone that made up the last vote of a near $1 trillion stimulus, he's pro choice, and often pro union. So, what does the party do? Does the party make its tent as big as possible and dilute its brand, or does the party define itself on its core principles and tell everyone else to take a hike?

On this last question, ironically enough, both sides will claim that this fiasco has proven them right. The purists, like me, will say that Specter left because the base was rejecting. That's true. Specter wasn't going to win in the Republican party. The moderate big tenters will say that Specter leaving shows the party is being run by the zealots. Of course, Scott Rasmussen's analysis clearly shows that far too much Specter like policy has alienated the beltway Republicans from the base.

I can tell you that there is no way that Republicans will win pushing Democratic lite policies. Moderates are already proclaiming that this is further proof that the base is far too conservative. It's true that conservatives have absolutely no use for moderates. It's also true that conservatives have absolutely no problem using a scorched earth policy to remove all remaining moderates. It's further true that conservatives can be vindictive when they see a Republican compromising on moderate legislation. Yet, the Republicans lost, and they lost huge, not because they were too conservative but too moderate. Does anyone really think that if Republicans had managed a balanced budget during the economic boom that they would have lost in 2006?

A party has to stand for something or it stands for nothing. If they reach out to moderate politicians, then what. Then, the party continues to produce legislation that looks more like its backed by liberals than conservatives. That's exactly why they're in the minority now. The base isn't going to come back with further comprehensive immigration reform bills, hokey mortgage schemes, and more NCLB. If the Republican party wants to regain its brand, it needs to champion core conservative principles and work hard to get credibility back on them. This is a moment of choice. The Republicans can view the loss of Specter as a reason to reach out to people that will ultimately be rejected by its base or it can view this as the beginning of a party getting back to its core principles.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm a conservative, not a Republican. I agree with what you wrote here: the Republican brand has become so diluted that we get candidates like McCain. He's a great man, a hero to this country, and brave beyond words, but his politics don't represent the conservative values that the people want. I still voted for him, because I knew the alternative was far worse.

That said, I think there is a new conservative, a neo-conservative, if you will, that believes in limited government, border hawkishness, foreign policy hawkishness, fiscal responsibility, but rejects some of the evangelical tenets like pro-life and things like the defense of marriage act. I believe that, in addition to the "should we be more moderate or more extreme" divide, this is another division within the party.

Anonymous said...

Mike,

Do you have polling proof that the Republicans lost the election because they were too moderate?

Thanks

mike volpe said...

They lost the last election because Bush weighed them down. They lost in 2006 because fiscal conservatives didn't show up. The base turned on the party because of spending. Now, if you call that too moderate or whatever, that's why they lost.

Anonymous said...

So I guess from your reply you don't have any polling data to back up that assertion?

mike volpe said...

It's 2009 and you want me to find polling from 2006. No, off the top of my head, I don't have any polling from the 2006 election. I don't hold onto such things for more than two years.