Winning on Principles

The New York Times has a look at the ideological battle within the Republican Party as the GOP deals with their drubbings in 2006 and 2008 and the Spector defection. Meanwhile, David Frum offers his own suggestions on rebuilding the party.

Everyone looks at the GOP’s problems through the lens of “conservatives” versus “moderates.” That is the wrong way to look at the issue: what this battle really is about is “principles” versus “politics.” The moderates want the GOP to play towards what they see as the political “center”—or the left. The principle-minded factions wants the GOP to stand on a bedrock of principle.

The moderates have a point. If you want to win as a party, you go where the votes are. It’s classic Anthony Downs, the voters fall along a bell curve and the party that can capture the most votes in the middle will win the election.

But the problem is that if the choice is between the Democrats and the Democrats-Lite, why not vote for the real thing? If Republicans start advocating for more government control, they lose the conservative and libertarian wings of the party and end up losing anyway.

There has to be room for both. The GOP cannot win by turning its back on its principles, but it has to be able to advocate for those principles. Being the best conservative in the world does absolutely nothing unless the GOP cannot get others to understand the importance of that stand.

That is the problem with the GOP today. They have no ability to connect with the average voter. They’ve lost the popular imagination, they’ve lost their political “brand” and there is no message coming from the GOP today. Even when they do have a point, they are so ham-handed in making it that they end up hurting each other.

All is not lost. Obama is a mule—a rare character that comes out of nowhere, establishes power, but leaves no lasting coattails. Obama is a rare individual, which makes him dangerous to the GOP, but the more the Democratic Party becomes a cult of personality, the worse off they are. Obama becomes largely irrelevant no later than 2016, and by then the sheen will be off. If the GOP hasn’t gotten their act together by then, they’ll have gone the way of the Whigs. Now is the time that the GOP needs to regroup and experiment.

That is what the GOP ultimately needs to do. They can’t be afraid of failure. They’ve already failed, now is the time to be bold. Yes, the GOP needs to stand on its principles, but what they really need to do is win on those principles. That means trying everything they can to advocate for their values and seeing what sticks. As badly as Michael Steele’s first weeks on the job has been, at least someone is trying new tactics.

Politics is cyclical, and the Democrats are already sowing the seeds of their own downfall. They will grow complacent and arrogant (and have already), and the GOP will get their opening. Exploiting that weakness will take time and trial. But the Republican Party must learn to stand for something and be able to make that stand one that others will join. That is a tall order, but it is the way politics work in America. Politics is cyclical, and any claim of permanent Democratic majority status is as premature now as claims of a permanent Republican majority in 2002 were then.