What Conservatives and the Republican Party Need to Do to Win Back the Majority.
By: Brian Sikma
January 30, 2009
A time in the wilderness forces individuals and movements to contemplate their existence, their purpose, and their direction. All distractions are stripped away, all facts laid bare and all pretenses set aside when solitude and separation replace the swirling activities we have been accustomed too. The conservative movement, and the Republican Party, find themselves in this situation today. We are in the wilderness.
Whether or not we stay irrelevant during this time and muddle about never learning the lessons we should learn, or whether we mercilessly grade our past performance and prepare for future achievements is a decision all our own. Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008 because they were irrelevant, uncompelling, and playing politics instead of living by principle. Conservatism, by nature a movement not synonymous with the Republican Party, failed politically because it had little voice in the instrument that became its mouthpiece in the realm of elections and politics. Make no mistake, though, conservatism did not lose the 2006 and 2008 elections because conservatism was not on the ballot as a candidate.
Those candidates that successfully articulated a conservative message, and were able to distinguish themselves from Republican errors and disasters, were the candidates that won inspite of unfavorable environments for the party brand. Not every conservative won because not every conservative was successful at communicating the conservative message, and the problems of communication range from lack of financial support to candidate inexperience. But these communication problems are easier to solve than any fundamental problems of having a party or series of candidates that may not espouse the conservative philosophy.
Republicans must understand that conservative are not to be taken for granted, and paying lip services to a series of conservative issue positions while not understanding the conservative philosophy as a whole, or its application to politics, will only lead to repeats of the disasters of the previous two election cycles. Conservatives should, and in many cases already do, know that the Republican Party is not a synonym for conservative ideas. Even after surveying the failures of the Republican Party over the past two cycles (failures that did not crop up overnight but began with Congressional majorities and a president that either ignored or forgot the principles of limited government and fiscal accountability and responsibility), conservatives should not seriously consider bolting the party. Not yet.
Instead of bolting from the Republican Party and seeking to build anew from the ground up, a challenge not be underestimated, conservatives would be better served to lead a revolution within the GOP. A revolt against the mediocrity of the past, a revolt against the unrestrained spending, the reckless expansion of government, and the idea that more left-leaning principles are required if the party is to be relevant in future elections.
Despite a serious rift within the ranks of the party over the problem of illegal immigration with many key leaders at the top of the party choosing to promote amnesty over security, and posturing over progress, Republicans lost Hispanic voters between 2004 and 2008. Attempts to compromise principles for the sake of political victories yielded defeats of both principle and politics. Moving to the left won’t solve the electoral problems the Republican Party is facing, and conservatives must be the ones moving the party not just to the right, but to a set of principles, a series of policies, and a style politics that is premised on the great ideas that are the secret to America’s past success and are the key to her future prosperity.
Rejuvenating a party confused about its future will require that conservatives get involved in the party. This may sound self-evident, but it is important that we not overlook this point. Sitting at home, or at a conservative gathering, and pontificating about the failures of the GOP will not magically transform a party in need of leadership. Having an opinion and voicing it means something, but hardly as much as acting upon those beliefs. If you are a conservative that is frustrated with the Republican Party: get involved in the party. Take leadership and move forward, you may not be liked, but you will be doing the right thing.
So what specifically must conservatives do to prepare for the future and retaking the majority? Conservatives must reignite a passion for their principles within their movement and within the American people, they must revive the dream of principled leadership in government, and they must reclaim the ground that has been lost under both Republican and Democrat governance by reasserting themselves politically. The last point requires the use of a conduit, a political party, and as has been already said that is the Republican Party.
Conservatives need not be apologetic for their principles. Now is the time for us to reignite a passion for our principles. Reignite a burning desire to adhere to what we believe in because what we believe in is right, and what we believe in works. Our principles were not defeated at the ballot box, only the political brand name of those principles. Political defeat should not cause us to become timid about promoting principles that, though not reflected in current governing majorities, are nevertheless exactly the prescription that our nation needs.
Principles matter because they are the basis of everything that we do. Principles matter because they shape our approach to problems, our view of what needs to be done, and our measurement of success towards an end. If we do not believe in our principles we cannot expect others to join us in voicing an alternative to the kind of government we now have.
But what are these principles, and why do they matter? Thinkers, statesmen, leaders, writers and academics have spent years describing what conservatives believe in and what their defining principles are. Their work has been valuable, but for conservatives seeking to rediscover what it means to be conservative in politics and governing, it is not necessary to delve into every detail of the academic analysis of conservatism. Instead, conservatives would do well to recall a few key principles that stand out above all the others, or form the basis for the rest of what conservatism stands for.
One of the most important principles conservatives believe in is the principle of limited government. The political left sees nothing wrong with bigger government because it views government as an important asset in the goal of realizing a better future for society. Conservatives believe that man is not perfect and since this is the case government is a necessary repression on his less than noble natural instincts. To quote James Madison writing in Federalist No. 51 “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” This is not to say that conservatives do not believe that good people exist, they believe that a great many good and compassionate people exist, but this is because these individuals have overcome the natural tendency within themselves to put their own interests ahead of everyone else’s interests at whatever cost.
To a conservative, government restrains the bad impulses of individuals and plays an important role in maintaining order in a society, but beyond this rather defensive role, government is useless. While liberals think that government can make individuals better, conservatives prefer to leave the betterment of human nature to other institutions. This is why to liberals the idea of a government that is active in the everyday lives of people is a very attractive idea.
Because conservatives believe the role of government to be naturally limited by the nature of mankind, they believe that it is important that government not interfere with institutions that work to make individuals better members of society. Two of those institutions are the family and the church. Conservatives believe in the freedom of religion and they respect the institution of the family because they realize that these two institutions provide critical services that government cannot provide. This is not to say that conservatives believe anything can pass in the name of religion, or that anything done in the name of family is acceptable. Where attacks on these two institutions come from those posing as participants in them, the government has a legitimate role to deny recognition and sanction to those activities.
The limited effectiveness of government is not confined to just social affairs. Government is not very effective at managing economic matters, either. Regulating the production of goods, imposing limits (either ceilings or floors) on prices and wages, dictating the flow of the economy, and imposing needless and unnecessary regulations all cause the economy to suffer. According to conservative thinking, good economic times are the creation of hard work and effort on the part of individuals who are seeking to provide for themselves and those they are responsible for. In unleashing the individual’s capacity to work, contribute, and experiment, conservatives believe that the rights of the individual take precedent over the wishes of the government.
Again, this is not to say that conservatives are unconcerned about people using deceptive measures to further their economic interests. Nor does it mean that all government intervention in an economy is bad. There are certain rules of the road that must be followed; right and wrong must be enforced in order for free markets to succeed. Much like the role of a referee in a ball game, government’s role is to enforce the rules, not score points. Liberals believe the government is a team and can score points in the game. Conservatives believe that government can only penalize the real players as an attempt to encourage honest play.
An area where conservatives are maybe a bit more optimistic about the role of government is the matter of national defense. If societies are to exist and grow and succeed, there will need to be voluntary cooperation among the members. But while a society may be relatively coherent within itself, it may be at odds with other societies that are founded on very different principles or interests. While a free society that properly understands the role of individuals, families, faith, and the government never seeks to impose its will on another society, it may draw the ire of a competing society made up of people who unite around a very different standard.
National defense is best achieved by cooperative efforts that reach out across all of society and since this requires some sacrifice of individual autonomy it is important that government fulfill this role. National security concerns are not an excuse for government to violate rights and freedoms, but those who seek a safe society must be prepared to surrender a measure of freedom in exchange for security. Yes, this balance is a very delicate one and the subject of much debate, but on the whole our nation has been successful in balancing a respect for freedom with an understanding that, if our country is to remain free, we must-absolutely must-have a strong national defense.
These principles are not a comprehensive list of conservative principles, but they form the backbone of conservative thinking and they should serve as a guide to our policies and our politics. If conservatives are going to successfully regain the majority, they must chose to embrace these principles at the expense of short-term political positions. Transient political posturing must be left for others because true leadership, and leadership worth having and being a part of, requires that principles come first.
As important as principles are, however, we will not succeed politically if we don’t practically apply them to the problems faced by our country today. Discussions of principles matter only so long as you are willing to live by those principles and living, or governing, by principle requires adherence to certain policies. Within the conservative movement there is of course room for respectful, thoughtful, and intelligent debate, but there are also certain policies that we must coalesce around if we are to be successful politically.
The economy, more than any other issue right now is front and center on the minds of many Americans. As the growth of the mid- and late-1980s and 1990s gave way to the more rocky, but still prosperous days of the early- to mid-2000s, the American people become more concerned about the state of the economy. Republicans responded by passing appropriate and necessary tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. These efforts halted a slowing economy and restored our country to the path of growth. But all of this came to an end in late 2007 through late 2008 when the housing market finally slowed and a series of financial crisis involving some of the nation’s largest banks generated wide-spread fear about the security of markets and investments.
By early 2009 the government’s response to the crisis had been to issue bailout after bailout to entities previously doomed to fail. Unfortunately, although the bailouts were done in the name of saving the jobs, investments, and savings of millions of average Americans, these hardworking people saw no relief. The responsible American taxpayer was forced by his and her government
to pay for the irresponsible activities of others. Topping it off, years of government intervention in the housing market via Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac and ill-thought out regulation were to bear most of the blame of the severity of the downturn.
As conservatives we must understand that although the stimulus bills passed so far by Congress, and the stimulus plans put forward by the Treasury Department, provide exactly the wrong prescription for returning our economy to full health and strength, we are not opposed to stimulating the economy. We are opposed to efforts to revive the economy through government spending financed by debt and higher taxes. We are supportive of efforts to revive the economy through incentives that reward the American people for hard work, creativity, and ingenuity. Government spending will temporarily create jobs while creating long-term harm to the economy by expanding the national debt and deficits. Job growth and recovery generated by the private sector will provide a much longer-lasting and positive recovery.
The conservative view of what is needed to stimulate the economy means that we embrace broad-based tax cuts on individual income at all levels. We seek to eliminate the death tax and marriage tax penalties that discourage the kind of activity that we need to encourage. We work to eliminate the capital gains tax for individuals so Americans want to invest and entrepreneurs have access to the capital that they need to put Americans to work. We advocate for a lower corporate gains tax because we cannot expect to build a strong economy with one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. Companies should be free to focus on how they can expand and hire, not worry about how their businesses decisions impact their tax liability.
The American people need jobs. The focus of our economic plans should be about encouraging and stimulating the creation of new jobs, better jobs. The tax cuts that we advocate for, the deregulation that we seek, and the policy reforms that we believe in must be communicated to the American people through the lens of how these policies create jobs. A hallmark of conservatism is that not only is it a thought process and philosophy that is morally right and logically sound, but that it simply works.
On the matter of government spending conservatives must stand for less spending and more responsible spending. It was the Republican Party’s departure from this principle that caused them to lose the respect of the American people. If we truly believe in limited government then we should stand for limited government spending. Businesses and families across America live on a budget. It is time for the government to live on one too.
While the economy and fiscal issues are looming large right now, they are not the only important issue facing our nation. As America continues to wage a war against radical Islamic terrorists abroad, and deal with diverse threats from rogue regimes and more traditional, nation-state aggressors, conservatives must be clear that they believe in a strong national defense.
Our military has been worn down by conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now is not the time to cut the size of the defense budget. Now is the time to expand our conventional forces while continuing to develop our response to unconventional threats. The safest and surest way to insure peace is to be strong enough to defeat any foe.
In addition to supporting funding for projects like missile defense and new weapons technologies, conservatives must also use the bully pulpit to praise and thank the faithful and dedicated heroes who wear the uniform of the United States. When the media fails to acknowledge them, and some political movements attempt to marginalize them, conservatives need to stand up and praise them. It is because of them, and their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their fellow warriors, some of whom have paid the ultimate price for our freedom, that our nation continues to stand tall as a beacon of freedom and hope in a world darkened by tyranny and evil.
Having a strong economy, and defending a great country, are only good so long as we as a society and we as a culture stand for something ourselves. Conservatives must be unwavering in their defense of unborn human life. We must not fail to advocate for the repeal of policies that have lead to the abortion of 50 million of our fellow citizens. We will never know of the contributions these individuals could have made to our lives if only we had chosen to give them a chance.
In every abortion there are two victims: the mother and the child. Our goal should be to not only end abortion but to also advance the message that there is an alternative for women facing crisis pregnancies. Some of this will require skillful debate and sound legislation. Some of this will require personal activism and personal contribution to our communities. As with many problems, this is not something the government can solve on its own, it must also be solved by the gracious and compassionate efforts of private individuals.
Conservatives must also take a strong stand in another area of social conflict: the battle over traditional marriage. For centuries marriage has been defined in Western Civilization as the union of one man and one woman. For millennia now the Judeo-Christian faith has held up monogamous heterosexual marriage as the ideal. Societies may have failed in the past to live up to this standard, but that does not mean that the standard itself is flawed. Conservatives will stand for, support, and defend the belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. We will respectfully oppose those who wish to redefine this institution because it is absolutely essential to the success of civilization that marriage remain limited two this definition.
So now that we have discussed the reasons for why the Republican Party and conservatism are in the political wilderness, and what kind of principles we must believe in and what kind of policies we must embrace, we now need to consider what we must do if we are to return to the majority.
From a practical standpoint conservatives and Republicans need to communicate their message clearly, emphatically, compellingly, and frequently. Minority status does not grant many governing privileges but it certainly is entitled to its viewpoint. Conservatives need to be active at every level, from the local level up to the federal level, in optimistically and cheerfully opposing the big-spending, tax-increasing, national security-weakening, and traditional values-threatening, policies being advanced by liberals in government.
Democrats (and since the Democrat Party is controlled by liberals I think we can use this label interchangeably for now) are not hesitating to move quickly in the wrong direction. They wrongfully view their ascent to power as a mandate to implement policies that will shift our communities, our states and our nation in an utterly different direction. Undoubtedly their actions will not curry favor with the American people, but conservatives must not assume that they have no work ahead of them. Liberals do not speak in terms of what their policies will do, only in what they hope or intend for their policies to do. Unless conservatives carefully and clearly explain to Americans the real and full impact of what some policies will do, they will find themselves still standing on the outside looking in at the next election cycle.
Communication of the conservative message needs to include all aspects of the media. From letters to the editor to guest columns to press releases to TV and radio interviews, conservatives ranging from the rank of activist all the way up to member of Congress need to be communicating what it means to be a conservative. Speaking with co-workers, friends, and neighbors about what is going on in government and what needs to change will help our movement prepare for the next election cycle.
The year 2009 will be about laying the groundwork for victory in 2010. We cannot assume that we will rebuild our party or movement in 2010 if we are not communicating our vision today. Rebuilding will include not only communication but also involvement. Attendance at policy meetings, participation in community forums and events, and of course respectful interaction at public meetings, be they council meetings or Congressional committee hearings.
We must carry the message of conservatism far and wide this year if we are to be successful next year. We must organize and recruit volunteers, candidates, supporters, donors, and voters now in the common cause of a vision for a better, brighter, more prosperous and more moral America. The time to act is now. Let us reignite a passion for our principles, let us revive a vision for principled policies, and let us reclaim the ground that we lost. Together we can, in the words of Ronald Reagan “make America great again.”
Brian Sikma has served on numerous Republican campaigns in various positions, including that of Communications Director. He currently leads Reclaim Our Heritage, a small public advocacy organization and is involved in various aspects of the conservative movement.