It was comforting for Republicans to believe that the elections result, horrifying as it was, had validated rather than repudiated their core ideology. But this was, of course, a fiction. Conservative voters largely remained loyal to the party: self-identified Republicans shifted only 1 point toward the Democrats, and declined as a percentage of the electorate by only 2 points. What doomed the GOP was that it lost independent voters by 18 pointsa 15-point swing from 2004. In other words, the GOP lost because it alienated moderates. Pushing more cuts to Medicaid or farm subsidies would hardly have helped.
Of course, both parties long ago mastered the art of postelection spin, and the notion that voters had been yearning for true conservatism was useful in convincing many in the press that the Democrats own agenda lacked public support. But in the months since the Republican loss, the party has given every sign that the line wasnt just for public consumption. On the two issues that voters most cared about, according to exit pollsIraq and corruptionRepublicans have made few concessions to the countrys desire for change. Even more remarkably, on the underlying issue of the proper size and role of the federal government, theyve reacted by choosing, consciously and deliberately, to double-down on the brand of small-government ideological purity that once energized their movement but has lately led to its decline.
That Republicans have drawn all the wrong lessons from their loss of power isnt merely a case of tone-deaf political positioning, or even of simple stubbornness. Rather, in each of its separate responses, the party has chosen the path that best allows it to avoid the wrenching process of looking critically at some of its fundamental ideological assumptions assumptions that remain cherished by its core supporters but that have been politically and substantively disastrous: that government should always be made smaller and that taxes should always be cut, never raised; that applying or threatening military force is the most important way we can influence the world, while diplomacy is for wimps; and that whats good for Washington business lobbyists is good for the economy.
No party relishes having to question the continuing relevance of its bedrock principles, but its possible to emerge stronger from the process. During the 1980s and 90s, prompted by a series of electoral defeats, Democrats eventually came to acknowledge that the era of their supremacy, which had begun in the 1930s with FDRs New Deal, was over. Gradually, an increasing number of voices in the party began to challenge some of the basic precepts that Democrats had long held as close to sacrosanct but whose value for addressing the major political and policy questions of the day had declined: that government programs by definition help the poor; that crime cant be brought under control without first addressing its root causes; and that overseas military interventions are bound to end, like Vietnam, in a bloody quagmire. This journey was long and often painful, but it turned out to be crucial to Democrats ability to win back the trust of voters and govern effectively. Without it, the party probably couldnt have balanced the budget, reformed welfare, or liberated Kosovo.
If Republicans are going to help solve any of todays most challenging problems, from fixing our health care system to fighting global warming to restoring Americas ability to lead the global security systemand if they hope to win elections againtheyll have to undergo a version of this same process. And thats the problem. For decades, their party, and the broader conservative movement on which it depends, has prided itself on the appealing, bumper-sticker simplicity of its core ideology: limited government and a strong defense. (Indeed, this formula had until lately been so successful for the GOP that in recent years liberals have actively tried to develop a similarly succinct expression of their own governing philosophywithout notable success.) Little wonder, then, that most Republicans prefer to misunderstand the message voters sent last fall. If their ideological pillars crumble, Republicans will face a troubling question: Whats left, beyond a cultural traditionalism that younger Americans are rejecting, for their party to stand for?
Of course, Republican presidents havent always given in to the yearnings of the partys extremist wing. Eisenhower held off the hard-liners in his cabinet who wanted a military response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Nixon reestablished relations with China, and George H. W. Bush understood that trying to depose Saddam and occupy Iraq after the Gulf War would likely have caused as many problems as it solved. Even Reagan was willing to sideline administration hawks and sit down with Gorbachev when he felt the time was right. But each of these moves required a conscious effort to resist powerful voices within the party that were clamoring for confrontation.
Today, after six and a half years of encouragement from the White Housenot to mention the galvanizing effect of 9/11those voices are even stronger, both among the partys Washington elite and its rank and file. When, in a rare triumph for the administrations moderates, the State Department announced a nuclear deal with North Korea in February, it was promptly denounced by prominent conservative ideologues and opinion leaders like John Bolton and Bill Kristol as overly favorable to Pyongyang. And when John McCain recently, in response to a question from a South Carolina Republican about the need to send an airmail message to Tehran, began singing Bomb Iran to the tune of the Beach Boys Barbara Ann, the assembled crowd of GOP activists laughed and cheered, and his ratings among Republican primary voters briefly spiked.
This tradition of thought played a key role in uniting the Republican Party almost lockstep behind Bushs plan to invade Iraq, and helps explain why, today, even after voters sent a clear message in opposition to the presidents approach, and even as the share of the country favoring withdrawal approaches 60 percent, congressional Republicans remain remarkably unified behind Bush. Nor have any of the major GOP presidential candidatesperhaps the most sensitive bellwethers for the mood of conservative votersbroken with Bushs stay-the-course strategy. Almost the only Republicans to do so are Chuck Hagel, who, for his efforts, has become persona non grata within the party, and those few senators like Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon Smith of Oregon who are more worried about facing moderate voters in a general election than conservative ones in a primary.
Of course, the foreign policy failures of the Bush years should by now have made clear, and not just to liberals, the damage that this worldview can do to our national interests. This knee-jerk preference for force will need to be confronted head on, and marginalized, if Republicans are going to play any kind of constructive role in solving the national security challenges of the futurefrom Iran to North Korea to Islamic fundamentalism to global poverty and AIDS.
And yet, thanks to a strange double standard that centrist opinion shapers are in part responsible for perpetuating, few people want to point this out. Since the dawn of the Bush era, Democrats have grown used to being told, often by their fellow liberals, that if they want to be taken seriously on national security, theyll need to sideline the extremist, knee-jerk antiwar wing of their party. And they largely have: none of the first- or second-tier Democratic presidential candidates is reflexively opposed to the use of military force, and the one minor candidate who is, Dennis Kucinich, is polling around 1 percent. But almost never do Republicans face serious calls, from their fellow conservatives or anyone else, to similarly distance themselves from their own extremists, despite the fact that those extremists are in far more powerful positions, and have wreaked far more damage in recent years, than antiwar Democrats. Questioning the wisdom of a reliance on military force to solve our problems remains an act of apostasy in the GOP. And while thats the case, Republicans will continue to stand in the way of efforts to develop a sane approach to national security.
There is a minority of Republicansincluding a few up-and-coming leaders of the partys small-government wing, like Representatives Mike Pence of Indiana and Jeff Flake of Arizonawho have shown they understand the need to loosen their partys ties to K Street. The week after the election, writing in support of Pences unsuccessful leadership bid, conservative columnist Bob Novak complained: While abandoning conservative principles, the spendthrift House had become chained to special corporate interests. But the direction theyre urging their party to move in suggests that, like the business-as-usual crowd that reelected Boehner and Blunt, they too have drawn the wrong lesson from defeat. Only in this case, their mistake could be even more damaging.
In the wake of their loss, many conservatives blamed their partys corruption scandals on its abandonment of small-government principles. The corruption, they claimed, was a product of big government, which is inherently crooked, while small-government conservatism is by nature honest and virtuous. The GOP came to power in 1994 promising lean government, and became the party that needs to unbuckle its pants and loosen its belt two notches after every lobbyist-paid meal, wrote conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg two days after the election. In other words, the sins of Abramoff et al. became just another data point in support of the small-government ideology to which Republicans have long subscribed. So, nothing serious to worry about there.
Theres a problem with this logic, however. Government certainly got bigger in the last few years under Republican control, but not that much bigger. What it really got was more corruptas measured by the number of GOP congressmen and their aides whove been indicted or convicted. It wasnt so much the growth of government that invited the corruption, but the attitude toward that government. After all, if you dont believe that government is capable of doing anything of value for people, why not use it, as Bush and DeLay did, to reward cronies and perpetuate political power?
Corruption aside, many conservatives have lately argued that a renewed commitment to limiting the growth of government is the key to the partys effort to rediscover its ideological moorings. Indeed, if there has been one consistent theme that conservatives have continued to sound since their defeatand there has beenits the need to return to principles of fiscal restraint. As Boehner told his GOP colleagues in a January speech: Republicans at all levels must recommit to the principles of limited and accountable government. Its that simple. And last month, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) sounded the same theme in an interview with NPR: If we say were for small government, and we dont act like that, then were going to have consequences. But Im also confident if we will be true to our principles, that the pendulum will swing back.
But this is exactly the wrong conclusion, both politically and substantively, for the party to draw. Politically, theres almost no evidence that, beyond the GOP base, small-government conservatism is an electoral winner. Bush, Rove, and DeLay implicitly understood this, which explains why they championed the creation of a half-a-trillion-dollar prescription-drug benefit. To have resisted the cries for help from seniors who depend on pricey medication would have been electoral folly. And when Republicans then tried to scale back government by privatizing Social Security, they paid a huge political price. In January 2005, 48 percent of voters disapproved of the GOP Congress, according to a Gallup poll. Six months laterafter the failure of Bushs privatization planthat figure had ballooned to 59 percent. The signs are piling up that the appeal of small-government conservatism is on the wane: In 1996, 61 percent of respondents to a Pew poll favored a smaller government with fewer services over a bigger government with more services. By last year, that number had declined to just 45 percent. In 2005, Coloradans voted to repeal a constitutional amendment that restricted the state legislature from increasing public spending. And a spate of recent surveys makes clear that on almost every issue that relates to the size and role of the federal government, Americans prefer the Democrats approach. In short, by heightening still further their commitment to small-government conservatism, Republicans would likely doom themselves to years in the minority.
Most Democrats would be fine with that. But the GOPs renewed zeal for cutting government wont help the country either. A philosophy that believes only in the power of the private sector simply cant offer serious solutions to the major domestic problemshealth care costs, growing inequality, economic insecurity caused by global trade, even the coarsening of the culturethat Americans will look to Washington to address over the next few years, and that will all require a strong role for the federal government. Thats why if Republicans are going to participate constructively in this process, or even offer their own positive vision for tackling these issues, theyll have no choice but to take on this basic ideological assumption that views any expansion of the state as a step toward socialism.
Still, it would be hard to overstate the lengths that todays GOP appears willing to go to in order to avoid serious thought about its future. Thats what lies behind the partys increasingly desperate hunt for a real conservative presidential candidate. Rallying around a Fred Thompson or a Newt Gingrich may or may not offer Republicans a winner in 2008. But at least itll allow them to put off, for another few precious years, the inevitable process of looking critically at some of their most basic beliefs about governing. Ducking this confrontation isnt in Republicans long-term interest, or the countrys. But its not so hard to understand why they dont quite feel up for having it just yet.