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We Didn't Just Lose a Race. We Lost Our Bearings.

By Dov S. Zakheim
Sunday, November 9, 2008

It is not exactly a blinding insight to note that the Republican Party has lost its way. The election of Barack Obama was simply the result of an intellectual decline that began with the start of President Bush's reelection campaign in the summer of 2003 and continued unabated, culminating in Gov. Sarah Palin's unabashed appeals this year to resentful, blue-collar Republican culture warriors.

Palin's error, John McCain's error and the GOP's error was to assume that a shrinking slice of the U.S. population could constitute an increasingly large and influential faction of the party. There are simply too few culturally conservative whites to sustain a national political party. At most, that community can contribute to a larger coalition; it cannot constitute that coalition on its own.

How did we lose our bearings so badly? In late 1998, when I joined then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's foreign policy team (famously dubbed the "Vulcans"), I was going to work for a man who stood for five key principles that many of us thought would underpin a national Republican majority for decades to come. Last week's failure stemmed from my party's failure to hew to these values.

The first and best-known of these was "compassionate conservatism," exemplified by the insistence that no child be left behind in poverty and despair -- a reflection of President Bush's determination to improve the lot of underprivileged Americans, especially minorities.

The second was modesty in international relations; we would no longer preen as the world's "indispensable nation," as the Clinton administration had boastfully put it.

The third was small government, meaning both lower taxes and less bureaucracy.

The fourth was a thorough transformation of our national defense structure, which entailed eliminating waste, cutting red tape and improving our acquisition system to produce a 21st-century military and intelligence community.

Finally, we wanted a new spirit of comity in Washington, reflecting the bipartisanship that had been the hallmark of Bush's governorship of Texas.

President Bush is a man who stubbornly adheres to the values that he believes in, but the administration and the party that he led -- my party -- abandoned every one of the five principles that catapulted him to the White House.

We did pass a No Child Left Behind education law, but many argued, especially after the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, that the Bush administration's conservatism was anything but compassionate.

We forgot about humility in international affairs, succumbing to the pipe dreams of neoconservatives who pinned our global reputation and power on remaking a Middle Eastern society about whose values and priorities they knew next to nothing.

We took a budget surplus and squandered it, remaining in Iraq for far too long, ignoring the profligacy of Wall Street and wasting billions in the process, leaving the nation once again hamstrung by a massive deficit and a ballooning national debt.

We tried mightily to transform the Pentagon but did little to eliminate congressional pork, fix a broken weapons-acquisition system or energize an ossified bureaucracy that was unable to manage the massive budgets that Congress continued to hand it.

And we came to a bitterly divided Washington and poured salt on partisan wounds, culminating in an ugly divide-and-rule style of politics that made sense to certain small-minded groups in certain small-minded places but had little resonance for the overwhelming majority of Americans who live, and struggle, in cities and suburbs across the country.

The United States remains a center-right nation, but it is not a bigoted or small-minded one. Ours is an inclusive, generous society. It may not want too much government, but it seeks responsible and efficient government. It eschews isolationism and admires the promise of cooperation in foreign affairs. It looks to its leaders to keep their promises, but it also wants them to win over those whose votes they did not receive.

All Americans have reason to be proud of President-elect Obama's victory. Tuesday's voting demonstrated once again the special -- indeed unique -- nature of American society. Now is the time for his loyal opposition to regroup and once again behave with the stature worthy of his victory, and of the American people's basic conservative instincts.

bingdz@comcast.net

Dov S. Zakheim was a senior foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign. He served as undersecretary of defense and chief financial officer of the Pentagon from 2001-04.

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