As the post-election soul-searching on the right begins, it is important to keep in mind two things. First, like all debates in a vacuum, it is of limited utility. Second, the GOP should deploy an “all of the above” strategy.
As to the substance of the debate, pundits should recall that much the same discussion went on after the 2008 debate. Then it ended. Then events ( the tea party, the budget fights, the subpar presidential field) took over, and it was far more important what key officials and top candidates did and what Democrats did than anything pundits mulled over in the months following the 2008 presidential loss. What sounds like a problem (Hispanic alienation) in isolation may disappear in practice (e.g. if a group of top-flight conservatives take on immigration reform), and unexpected developments ( the Petraeus saga) may wipe other considerations off the map.
That said, for party leaders, officials at all levels of government and donors, there is little reason for conservatives to rule out any of the good-faith suggestions flying about to update and expand the reach of the GOP. Yes, put more emphasis on the economic squeeze on the middle class but ALSO move ahead in realistic immigration reform. Get realistic on gay marriage but ALSO fix the turn-out-the-vote software. Find more instinctive politicians but ALSO carefully vet candidates so they don’t sound bonkers on hot-button issues.
Much of the pontification sounds like the pontificators have been asleep for four years. Come up with a middle-class agenda that favors school choice, health-care reform and upward mobility! Wow. It is like they missed the whole 2008 primary, the set of policy reforms introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and just about every serious speech Mitt Romney gave during the campaign. One can argue better messengers or more direct language would help, but it’s silly to think much of this hasn’t been tried again and again. If you won’t admit what has already been tried, it’s hard to be honest about what needs to be done.
It is also helpful in making policy decisions, sourcing candidates and determining legislative agendas to be clear about what is essential to conservatism and what is not. Republicans can adopt positions that are less or more conservative (there is nothing wrong with a little political expediency now and then), but they should be careful not to appropriate the conservative moniker to justify whatever it is they want to do or not do.
Conservatives’ faith in free markets, reasonable taxes, modest regulations and free trade are positions grounded in fundamental beliefs about the size and role of government (limited, there to protect its citizens’ rights and afford them safety from hostile powers). As a tactical matter that may require compromise ( e.g. accept revenue-generating tax reform), but the goal of a pro-growth tax code that eschews government favoritism of one industry or company over another is based on free-market principles. If a purported conservative wants to toss that aside (or opposition to defense sequestration or any other principle position), don’t be surprised when others question if he has any fixed beliefs.
On the other hand, positions that many claim to be equally essential to conservatism simply are not. If marital infidelity and divorce aren’t part of any conservative national political agenda, gay marriage need not be. No tenant of modern conservatism obligates politicians to insist on undoing a social consensus on the expansion of marriage freely arrived at by voters.
Nor is there anything conservative about opposing immigration reform. Republicans may do so because they think it will benefit Democrats or because they are afraid their talk-show hosts will holler at them, but it is not a conservative position. Conservatives favor meritocracy, entrepreneurial energy and a flexible labor market. As students of history they know immigration is essential to keep replenishing American culture and society and to make good on the vision of the framers that America is based on democratic ideals, not ethnic or racial identity.
As for the rule of law, the most common objection to immigration reform, there is nothing that breeds more contempt than a system operating on an underground economy and willful refusal to enforce existing law. It is not conservative to envision a police state robust enough to deport millions of people. The current immigration system is as counterproductive as prohibition, breeding lawlessness, violence and corruption.
Change the law (so it can be followed), restore border security and deal rationally with those here. It is not “amnesty”(an intellectually lazy term if there ever was one) to give a driver a parking ticket rather than take his car and license away and send him out of the country. It is hard to escape the conclusion that obsession with the rule of law (meaning, in this case, embracing current lawlessness) is a mask for obsession with keeping the country’s Anglo heritage. One can oppose immigration reform, but let us not pretend it is based on conservative principles.
In sum, Republicans should welcome innovation and resist calls to label the other guy’s innovations as irrelevant or unconservative. If a Republican is bent on firing up the base rather than expanding the reach of the party, he’s probably doing something counterproductive.
Republicans don’t have the luxury of investing in only one path of reform. Try it all. See what works. It’s the free-market approach to political revival.