Craig Shirley, author of two books on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns, including ”Rendezvous With Destiny,” is the president of Shirley & Banister, an Alexandria-based public affairs and communications firm.
In the penultimate scene of the 1972 movie “The Candidate,” the character played by Robert Redford turns to his political consultant after his surprise victory and says, “What do we do now?” Soon after, he is mobbed by well-wishers and dragged away, never getting an answer to his doubt-filled query.
Demoralized Republicans have been uttering that same line since Tuesday’s devastating loss. It wasn’t just that the GOP failed to win the White House. In race after race, in the House as well as the Senate, in all regions and nearly every demographic, the party went backward.
True, the election outcome was a rejection of Mitt Romney, but it was also a rejection of a political party that for many has become incoherent at best and contradictory at worst. Doubts plague the GOP. It is no exaggeration to call them “severe.”
The Republican Party has more cultural conflicts than the Habsburg Empire. As MSBNC’s Joe Scarborough observed after the election, the only thing that bound the GOP together for the past four years was an aversion to President Obama. But opposition is not a governing ideology, and unfocused anger is never a substitute for relevant conservative ideas.
There is no greater example of the contradictions within the national GOP than its position on same-sex marriage. This summer, Republicans put a plank in their convention platform calling for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Meanwhile, Obama said that while he favors gay marriage, it is up to each state to decide what to do about the issue. It is not a federal matter, in the president’s view.
Obama now apparently holds the more correct conservative position on the marriage issue. If the opposition party’s leader understands federalism better than the GOP does, is it any surprise that the Republican Party finds itself adrift, asking, “What do we do now?”
Since Obama’s first days in office, the GOP leadership has been content with the idea that opposing him is enough. It has saved Republicans from the uncomfortable task of facing up to what the party really stands for.
If Ronald Reagan, Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater were still living, they would be shaking their heads in disbelief at the party’s devolution. They gave the modern GOP its intellectual and political underpinnings: federalism (limited federal government) and fusionism (the notion that business interests and social interests are united in their aversion to big government). Although those concepts weren’t always an easy sell to the American people, together they formed a philosophy that put its trust in the individual over institutions.
But then came the Big Government Republicans of the George W. Bush administration. They preached a philosophy of “too big to fail,” surely one of the most frightening phrases — at least to conservatives — ever coined. Forget all that stuff about conservatism, they said. We have a new brand of ideology — which, ironically, was an old brand of Republicanism that Goldwater once dismissed as “dime store New Deal.”
The midterm elections of 2006 saw a rejection of Big Government Republicanism, as polls showed an astonishing number of voters from the right going for the Democrats, if only to punish a Republican Party they no longer recognized. Modern American conservatism has always drawn its inspiration from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that authority should routinely be challenged and that power flows upward rather than downward. But for some time now, the GOP has been going in the other direction. Indeed, by the 2008 elections, voters were choosing between two big-government parties.
Since the time of the New Deal, the Democratic Party has been organized around the philosophy of justice. And since Reagan remade the GOP beginning in early 1981, the party had been organized around the concept of freedom. That year, when the newly elected Reagan pitched a plan for tax cuts to a group of conservatives, he said the proposal was intended to reorder the relationship between the citizen and the government. It wasn’t just a tax cut — it was part of a philosophy.
What used to be a contest of ideas, however, has disintegrated into the equivalent of a schoolyard name-calling contest. Conservatives, if they think their ideas are better, should not fear articulating them while also respecting the ideas of liberals. At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing: a better, more prosperous and freer country for ourselves and our children. The only question is the best way to get there.