The elections of two weeks ago revealed two things. First, Obama and his agenda are not electorally fireproof; second, Republicans will fail to capitalize on the Democrats’ newfound weakness if they do not find a message around which the entire party can rally.The first revelation came in Virginia and New Jersey; the second in New York’s 23rd congressional district, where the party faithful backed Conservative Party candidate over the Republican Party candidate, only to split the vote and lose the seat to a Democrat for the first time in over 100 years. As long as Obama and his agenda remain unpopular among conservatives and large swathes of independents, as the case seemed to be in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans may repeat the recent electoral successes in 2010. But they will be transient victories. NY-23 showed that as long as the debate between “reformist Republicans” and “first-principles conservatives” is unresolved, the party base will be hopelessly split and in need of a unifying leader.
Most pundits have taken the Hoffman-Scozzafava duel in NY-23—in which Hoffman, the Conservative, won endorsements from many political leaders including Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin, and Soczzafava, the Republican, ended up dropping out and endorsing the Democrat—as a sign that Republican voters are disillusioned with their current representatives who seem willing to use government rather than limit it, and that the party is gearing for a return to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, and personal responsibility. But the return to first principles has already happened. Even though the internal debate is fierce, there is truly very little that separates the current reformist, Grand New Party Republicans from the traditional conservatives.
Reformist Republicans, who some might call “moderate Republicans,” want to use government policies to help the middle class, monitor only the most unseemly aspects of an otherwise free market, and promote strong families. This approach to public policy, however, is very similar to that of George W. Bush, who also wanted to use government for conservative ends. But President Bush used liberal means to promote conservative ends—providing federal funds for faith-based charities, expanding the Education Department to promote national accountability, and in general increasing government spending. There are some Bush era holdovers in Congress who will still think and act this way once in power, but most reformists wish to use conservative means to conservative ends.
The conservative way to use government is to create public policies that encourage individual liberty and personal responsibility. For the most part, this approach accepts that programs such as Medicare and Social Security aren’t going away. The question becomes how to make them work for conservatives. How do we maximize freedom, choice, and individual responsibility while maintaining a social safety net (or, to use a more fitting phrase, safety trampoline) that takes care of those in real need? Welfare reform was one of the greatest successes for such conservatives: it increased individual freedom and responsibility and reduced the size of government. But it also ensured that when you really need it, the government will be there to help you get back on your feet.
If the reformist Republicans—in short, those who want to use government, but in a conservative way, to help the middle class—had their way, the size of government would shrink dramatically and individual liberty would grow dramatically —there is little in their agenda with which traditional, limited-government conservatives would disagree. In education, students would have more choice in the form of vouchers or charter schools; in health care, individuals would have more control over their health decision through health savings accounts; in retirement policy, citizens would have more responsibility for their own savings.
When confronted with an actual policy issue, most first-principles conservatives would come to the same point of view as these reformist Republicans. The difference, then, for most Republicans is not in ideology, and it’s not even in the details—it’s in the message. Traditional conservatives would like a return to limited government—but they do not explain how limited government will help you or your neighbor. They just want it on principle. Most reformist Republicans believe in these same principles, even if they don’t go about reassuring the conservatives; but at least they try to explain how their principles will translate to real policies that help real people. The reformists believe in a government that helps people help themselves. It doesn’t just do things for them, as many Democrats would want; but it is there and it does help.
Traditional conservatives will invoke the presidency of Ronald Reagan as an example of first principles winning the day. But what made Reagan so remarkable was not only his unwavering belief in first principles, but also his ability to explain why those principles were good for America and good for public policy. Reagan, as he himself said, did not want a return to the past; rather, he wanted a past way of looking at new things. He wanted to apply first principles to the policy problems of the day.
The only way for Republicans to inspire voters is to learn to communicate how their principles will translate to a better life for the ordinary citizen. When Republicans advocate tax cuts, school vouchers, or decreases in government spending, they must argue how each of those policies promotes the very same goals many liberals desire: social justice, equality of opportunity, more and better access to health care. And Republican policies manage to do so while maintaining individual liberty and limited government, principles the Democrats often sacrifice but which are essential for maintaining a self-governing people.
Republicans can achieve more permanent victories in 2010 if they can express this message. To do so, the conservative and reformist Republicans must come together and realize that their principles are—for the most part—identical. What both are missing is a great communicator who can convey to the electorate and convince them why these principles are good for themselves, their communities, and their country.