This was first posted at www.davidcorn.com….
In the aftermath of a decisive defeat, Republicans and conservatives are nursing their wounds and wondering what went wrong. Many have come up with an easy answer: the GOP has drifted from its core principles; consequently, the voters have handed it the pink slip.
But is the drift more to blame than the principles?
Let’s look at one example of this argument. Michael Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor and an unsuccessful candidate for Senate in 2006, is running to become the new head of the Republican Party. In a statement he released on Thursday, he said,
The Republican Party must present a vision for the future of America that relies on our conservative values and core principles. It is wrong to believe the voters have suddenly become liberal. They have just lost any sense of confidence that the Republican Party holds the answers to their problems. We must face the fact that our party has failed in recent years to live up to our own principles — we have failed to be ‘solutions oriented’ in addressing the concerns of all Americans.
Does Steele have it right? Has his party failed to present “solutions” in recent years? Not really. The Republicans have presented plenty of “solutions,” but the voters have not cared for them.
What are the two core principles of the Republican Party? Cutting taxes (to ensure a smaller government) and swinging a big stick when it comes to national security. There’s also the social issues, such as opposing abortion rights and gay rights. But those lifestyle issues have often been a second-tier matter for many Republican leaders.
Now look at the George W. Bush presidency and the John McCain campaign. The core issues were tended to by both. Bush pushed tax cuts and started two wars (one of them elective!). How loyal to the core was that? He didn’t crusade against abortion rights and gay marriage, but he said the right things (from a social conservative perspective). Sure, government spending did go up on his watch–as did the deficit and the national debt (due to his tax cuts)–but much of that was attributed to increased military spending (another conservative idea) and expanding Medicare benefits. Does Steele and his fellow GOP handwringers believe they can get back to the White House by downsizing the Pentagon and undoing that Medicare expansion?
Bush has ended up an unpopular president because he was both conservative and incompetent. He launched an unnecessary war in Iraq and then mismanaged it. He lost an American city. On economic policies, he was a market-oriented fellow who snorted at regulation. For most of his presidency, his economic policy was essentially tax cuts, tax, cuts, tax cuts–and let the market sort out the rest. That conservative approach didn’t work. Now he’s a corporate socialist, throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at corporations that screwed up. But he had turned off the public long before making that lurch.
As for John McCain, he, too, ran on core conservative principles. He called for an across-the-board freeze on federal spending. He supported supply-side tax cuts (that he had once opposed). He called for a robust national security posture. And he did what many conservatives do: he accused the Democrats of being tax-and-spend liberals (“socialists,” his running mate called them) and claimed the Ds were dangerously weak on national security. On health care, he proposed market-oriented tax credits. He and Sarah Palin opposed abortion rights.
So what was there for a voter seeking Republicans loyal to core conservative principles not to like? McCain was offering lots of solutions. He had his (erratically-derived) proposals for addressing the economic meltdown and housing crisis. He said he had a plan for nabbing Osama bin Laden.
It seems that voters just aren’t keen on conservative solutions now. They do not appear to be yearning for a smaller government that does less. Many actually are hoping that the government will take steps to help them and their fellow citizens in these tough (and getting tougher) times. If conservatives are going to claim, as Palin explicitly did, that government is the problem and an obstacle to freedom, they can be credited for sticking to their ideological guns, but they’re not likely to put together a governing coalition at this moment.
There certainly have been periods when the conservatives’ siren song of lower taxes and less government appealed to many Americans. But it’s easier for conservatives to sell those core notions either (a) during not-so-hard times or (b) after a left-of-center administration has messed up. (For the latter, think Jimmy Carter.) In a vacuum, American voters don’t crave conservative solutions. For many Americans, ideology is relative. That is, what they want depends on what is happening around them.
So Steele and his comrades are stuck–with a lousy brand (thank you, President Bush) and with core principles that are not in sync with the current market demand. This is not to say that the party is dead. There are no permanent majorities in the United States. If the Democrats botch the job in the next two years, that ol’ pendulum could swing back and knock them on their backsides. But for the time being, the Republicans must move beyond this return-to-core-principles line–unless they are content to tread water in a pool of self-delusion.
If Steele truly believes his back-to-the-future rhetoric, Democrats ought to be rooting for him.