Since Election Day, we have heard from pundits across America — true conservatives, “reformist” conservatives, and even liberals — on what caused our recent unpleasantness or on how the Republican Party can regain power. Responses vary from “expel social conservatives” to “embrace big government” to “America is still a center-right nation.”
The last response, offered by sincere Republicans such as Bill Kristol, John Boehner, and Karl Rove, is particularly intriguing. What does it mean, and if it is true, what can we do about it? The phrase may be interpreted in one of two ways. 1) America is still a center-right nation, so the unique circumstances of 2008 led to Republican defeat, or 2) America is still a center-right nation, so a center-right Republican Party can quickly regain influence.
To this 1st contention, I call bunk. Two years ago, Republicans lost control of Congress for the first time in my intellectually cognitive life. Why? Well, the 2006 Republican Party is vastly different from the one elected in 1994. The Revolution Republicans of the mid-late 1990s represented a bastion of conservative public policy proposals, many of them successfully implemented. The current crop of Republicans have greatly increased non-defense spending, allowed greater government intervention into the private sector, and (most recently) supported $7 billion in taxpayer handouts this year.
The national Republican Party, at least as it is perceived by many Americans, is no longer a center-right party. Instead, it is the party of corruption and corporate welfare (again, perception). It almost seems as if some of the Republican leaders in Washington use “we are still a center-right nation” to excuse their poor performance and lack of fealty to proven conservative principles. The election of 2008 was likely a continuance of the repudiation of the Republicans leftover from 2006, but it certainly doesn’t appear that much changed during those two years. Republicans can’t continue to deceive themselves into thinking the perfect storm of 2008 caused their overwhelming defeat—lack of a coherent conservative message did.
Fortunately, the second response offers some hope. Take a look at the findings of my former boss, Mike Franc at the Heritage Foundation. His evidence shows that more Americans self-identify as conservatives than liberals, and these voters outnumber liberals in almost every state. What that means is that there are large numbers of conservatives out there who didn’t vote for Republicans this year — and those conservatives may be won over once again.
As another former boss, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, said recently, “Republicans have campaigned on the conservative themes of lower taxes, less government, and more freedom. They just haven’t governed that way. America didn’t turn away from conservatism, they turned away from many who faked it.”
And restoration is going to take some housecleaning. Conservatives are going to have to aggressively push their influence within the Republican Party and help the party develop a coherent conservative message that can appeal to a broad swath of Americans. Fortunately, we have a solid foundation. In the House, Reps. Eric Cantor, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, John Shadegg, Jeb Hensarling, Michele Bachman, Jeff Flake, and others are aggressively pursuing principled reforms, while the conservative bloc in the Senate is led by Sens. Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, and John Cornyn. But our deepest bench lies in the state capitols, which are innovation labs for ground-breaking ideas and experimentation. Several state leaders are poised to take their ideas national, including Govs. Mark Sanford, Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, and Mitch Daniels. These leaders are supported by a wide network of think tanks, each creating new ideas and adapting time-honored conservative principles for modern problems.
2008 was disappointing. Yet, if the United States truly remains a center-right nation, our leaders-in-waiting are poised to prove it.