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.”