The midterm elections of 2006 saw a rejection of Big Government Republicanism, as polls showed an astonishing number of voters from the right going for the Democrats, if only to punish a Republican Party they no longer recognized. Modern American conservatism has always drawn its inspiration from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that authority should routinely be challenged and that power flows upward rather than downward. But for some time now, the GOP has been going in the other direction. Indeed, by the 2008 elections, voters were choosing between two big-government parties.
Since the time of the New Deal, the Democratic Party has been organized around the philosophy of justice. And since Reagan remade the GOP beginning in early 1981, the party had been organized around the concept of freedom. That year, when the newly elected Reagan pitched a plan for tax cuts to a group of conservatives, he said the proposal was intended to reorder the relationship between the citizen and the government. It wasn’t just a tax cut — it was part of a philosophy.
What used to be a contest of ideas, however, has disintegrated into the equivalent of a schoolyard name-calling contest. Conservatives, if they think their ideas are better, should not fear articulating them while also respecting the ideas of liberals. At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing: a better, more prosperous and freer country for ourselves and our children. The only question is the best way to get there.
The GOP is hardly positioned to have that debate. What is left of the national party is a smoking hole in the ground with millions, possibly billions, of dollars wasted and establishmentarians lashing out against the very conservatives who helped build the party. Because Romney never understood conservatism, he could never explain to swing voters how a limited-government philosophy could make the country more secure and their lives better.
Today, the GOP does not know what it wants to be. It has a true identity crisis. The party never had that important conversation with itself after John McCain’s defeat in 2008, instead telling itself that opposition to the Democrats was enough — and not offering a competing philosophy. Hence the tea party, frustrated with the GOP’s ruling elites, stepped into the vacuum with its own movement.
There has already been lots of chatter from elites about the coming fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and the need to move to the middle of American politics. This suggests that Romney was punished by the electorate for holding firm to conservative convictions. But that misreads the problem: For too many voters, Romney seemed to have no political convictions at all.
What is really needed?
The first step has to be a recognition that the world and the nation have changed. This does not mean that Republicans should alter their principles but rather that they should reengage with a philosophy of freedom, individual rights and individual privacy.