Conservatives Must Embrace Principles of Reagan, Lincoln to Succeed

In a recent Salon article, “The conservative crackup: How the Republican Party lost its mind,” Kim Messick claims the Republican Party has lurched to the right, bipartisanship has been lost, and that “our government isn’t designed to function in these conditions.”

Messick then compared the Tea Party-infused GOP to tyrannical regimes, writing, “The Republican Party, particularly in the House, has turned into the legislative equivalent of North Korea — a political outlier so extreme it has lost the ability to achieve its objectives through normal political means.”

Though Messick at least gives conservatives some credit for the Republican Party’s long-term success, he wrote of the modern GOP, “Because of its demographic weakness, it is more beholden than ever to the intensity of its most extreme voters. This has engendered a death spiral in which it must take increasingly radical positions to drive these voters to the polls…”

In a Washington Post op-ed, “How to save the Republican Party, courtesy of two Democrats,” William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck lament the party’s woes and argue that the Republican Party should essentially abandon conservatism and conservative activists for its own good.

“As long as aspirants for GOP leadership flinch from confronting their angry base, the American people will continue to see Republicans as uncompromising, uncaring and retrograde,” they wrote.

This has been a consistent liberal attack since the days of Ronald Reagan: Republicans are extremists and crazy not to work in a "bipartisan" manner to support more liberal programs and that being more conservative will lead to the party’s implosion. The left cries crocodile tears, lamenting the destruction of the GOP because it is just too conservative.

Contrary to Salon and the Post's self-serving assertions that the Tea Party is leading the GOP to its doom, it was the Republican Party establishment’s failed strategy during the last stages of the George W. Bush era that nearly left the party in shambles.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Republican Party strategists fell in love with moderate, “compassionate” conservatism, imagining that it could help it attract less partisan voters seeking stability. Karl Rove, among others, tried to emulate the Presidential campaign of William McKinley in 1896, offering philosophically bland but personally appealing candidates that could, through careful rhetoric and appeals to bipartisanship, undercut rabble-rousers on the right and the left.

Washington Post writer David Von Drehle wrote in 1999 that the McKinley strategy of “raising money on a scale previously unimagined, while scarcely leaving his front porch, McKinley remade the party in his own charming image -- inclusive, pragmatic, noncontroversial,” was highly appealing to Rove and other party strategists.

There was some merit to Rove’s strategy, as the peace and stability America had been enjoying after the collapse of Communism led to a sort of Pax Americana in which the country was unmatched by any national power or ideology. Some even called it the “end of history.” Rove’s strategy was rational, as American prosperity had reached its zenith in the wake of the Reagan economic boom and Democrat Bill Clinton’s concession in his 1996 State of the Union Address that “the era of big government is over.”

Clinton’s concession, “triangulation,” and seeming moderation on many issues turned out to be not a capitulation on progressive ideals but retreat and retrenchment. Reagan’s success as president went beyond policy implementation and reducing the size of government; he changed the way Americans viewed the role of government in their lives, restored their faith in American institutions, and brought new hope that the forces of communism and tyranny could indeed be pushed back and defeated.

Building from the defeat of conservative champion and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, Reagan assembled a strong and enduring coalition based a bold conservative philosophy deriving from the Founding Fathers. Reagan’s was an appeal to the “ancient faith,” as Abraham Lincoln often called the nation’s founding ideals, especially the Declaration of Independence. Legendary journalist and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon once said of Reagan that he “spoke to the future with the accents of the past.”

Reagan did what few presidents have done in American history: lead an opposition movement into power that decentralized American policy to restrict rather than grow the size of government.

Liberals too played the long game. Though struggling electorally, they focused instead on winning the forces that shaped American culture--Hollywood, the mainstream media, and education. The end product of liberal cultural dominance was the election of Barack Obama, and after his reelection in 2012 it was all too clear that the “silent-majority” of mainstream American culture had been shifted to the left.

A bland Republican Party that fails to win elections is exactly what its opponents on the left want, and, for the most part, is what they have received in recent presidential elections. In the days after Obama was elected, liberals were declaring then-Florida Governor Charlie Crist and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger were the keys to the Republican Party’s future.

Time magazine profile said of Crist in 2008, “Crist and other bipartisan Republican governors may well be the model for how the GOP should rebuild itself after the crippling losses of both 2006 and 2008.”

Crist was crushed in the 2010 Florida Senate race by current Sen. Marco Rubio during the Tea Party wave that precipitated one of the largest Congressional sweeps by the Republican Party in over a century.

Crist is now a Democrat.

In large part, Tea Party members fear that if the United States continues on its current path, it risks resembling the social democracies of Europe, which are on a path of long-term decline, and losing its "exceptionalism.” This is the reality in the state of California especially, which has been a bellwether of America’s future since the mid-twentieth century.

In 2003, California Republicans had a chance to change the state’s trajectory with the recall of Democratic Governor Grey Davis, but the party went with Arnold Schwarzenegger over the conservative state Senator Tom McClintock. Instead of getting a real debate between liberal and conservative governing philosophies, Republicans elected a dubiously conservative candidate with little more than star power, married into the liberal Kennedy family to boot. This may have been a reasonable choice for the short-term goal of winning a single election, but not for the long-term potential of conservative reform.

After miserably failing to pass a few reform ballot initiatives, Schwarzenegger tacked hard to the left, passing a cap-and-trade carbon cap bill and nearly passing universal health coverage legislation, which would have required the insurance industry to cover everyone and require all individuals to purchase health insurance.

That progressives lament the Republican Party's “radicalization” is nothing more than frustration over the fact that conservatives are far less willing to work with Democrats hand-in-hand to promote their liberal agenda; far more worrying, from their point of view, it seems to be working.

The better example for modern conservatives to follow would be the campaign of Abraham Lincoln in the 1858 Illinois Senate race. Opposing Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, one of the most powerful and popular men in the nation, Lincoln engaged in a series of debates challenging both Douglas and the status quo by defending his interpretation of America’s founding principles.

Lincoln lost the senate race, but he changed the direction of the Republican Party, which at the time had actually courted Douglas to cross the isle and become the party’s standard bearer. But they stuck with principled Lincoln and in doing so found a winning candidate for the 1860 presidential election.

The Tea Party, drawing its name and ideas from American Founding, has upheld Reagan’s call in his farewell address for an “informed patriotism”; discussions about the limits of government, the Constitution, and America’s founding principles have become ubiquitous. For example, conservative author and commentator Mark Levin’s book, The Liberty Amendments, calling for an Article V Constitutional convention to promote amendments capping the size of government, likely could not have been published in the absence of the informed and eager Tea Party market. This a marked change from meek “me too” Republicanism that progressives would prefer.

Although there have been several notable failures, the Tea Party wave has brought to the public eye a large number of articulate communicators of the conservative message, something badly missing from the GOP. They have done a far better job of organizing at the local level for stronger conservative candidates. The next step should be to start using the strategy of the left and fight back in terms of culture, media, and education. Issues like school choice need to be at the forefront if the country is to have a new birth of freedom.


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