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June 11, 2009
Big-Tent? For the GOP, the Answer is Both
Loathe that I am to wade into this again, the silly debate between
“big-tenters” and “true conservatives” over the future of the Republican
Party wages on. And damn it, someone needs to settle it.
The debate is silly because it obsesses over the wrong question: Should
the Republican Party reject conservative principles in order to appeal
to those in the political center?
The “true conservatives” rail endlessly against the notion, arguing that
a party without principles can’t win a national debate, and in the event
it somehow rode such a strategy to election victory, certainly couldn’t
govern. They rage at the idea that the party should sell its soul in
order to make centrists, or “big-tenters,” more comfortable in the
So: Should the Republican Party be a conservative party? Or a big-tent
Easy. The Republican Party should be a conservative, big-tent party. And
if that answer doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because you’ve wrongly
analyzed the events of the past 15 years.
Conventional wisdom among “true conservative” types is that Republicans
briefly embraced conservative principles after taking control of
Congress in 1994, but soon gave themselves over to ill-advised political
centrism in an effort to build bigger electoral majorities.
That’s not really what happened.
It’s true that the GOP congressional majority did not pursue
conservative policies for very long. They got off to a good start. They
put shackles on Bill Clinton’s spending habits and forced Clinton to
accept welfare reform. They brought about such spending discipline that
the federal government actually ran surpluses for several years.
Then Newt Gingrich started stumbling on ethical problems. Then Clinton
started stealing all the GOP’s issues from them via the strategy of
political triangulation. Then the GOP overplayed its hand by impeaching
Having lost its leader, lost its political advantage and lost its focus,
the Republicans became what majority congressional caucuses usually
become. Moderates? No, silly. Whores.
They discovered the fun of politically driven district gerrymandering.
They discovered the joys of earmark spending. They let big-spending,
long-time incumbents like California’s Jerry Lewis and Alaska’s Don
Young chair key committees, rather than handing those assignments to
reformers who wanted to get federal spending under control.
These guys weren’t clinging to some centrist ideological philosophy in
the hope that the public would appreciate their reasonableness. They
were simply engaged in a massive incumbent-protection effort. Many of
them may have started as “true conservatives.” Indeed, it was very easy
in 1994 to mouth conservative platitudes and win applause. Who’s to say
they weren’t whores in 1994 too? Once it became more in their
self-interest to protect their incumbency and their seniority, they did
so. Whores are nothing if not adaptable.
These people are philosophical nothings. Always have been. They don’t
support anything unless there’s something in it for them – votes,
campaign cash, pork for their district – something. The only
reason they ran as Republicans in the first place was that they wanted
to go to Washington, and they came from districts where talking like a
conservative Republican was the best way to get there.
You might glean from all this that the answer is to get rid of such
political whores and attract people to run for office who are driven by
principle. I’d be all for that. Good luck.
Principled true believers are rarely in a position to run for Congress.
Such opportunity typically falls to those who are either local elected
officials who have learned how to reflect their districts, or are
well-connected businessmen with access to money and few influential
enemies. If you want to flush the Congress of whores and replace them
with principled conservatives, you’ll have to blow up the political
dynamics of almost every congressional district in America.
But this is not as big a problem as you think. You didn’t see moderate
Republicans like Lowell Weicker and Bob Packwood opposing Ronald
Reagan’s tax cuts in the 1980s, did you? Heck, even a lot of
Democrats supported those tax cuts. Because the public supported
them, and whores follow the crowd.
conservatives want to control the agenda again, they need to embrace
leaders – and I don’t mean radio talk show hosts – who can put
conservative ideas to work for the benefit of the people. There are
people like this in Washington now. Paul Ryan in the House. Tom Coburn
in the Senate. Real thinkers, real leaders, positive people. Get behind
them in the debate for the hearts and minds of the public.
Once they’ve won the debate, the whores will follow. And then, when
moderates want to join the Republican Party, let them. What’s the harm?
They won’t oppose a popular agenda – not if they know what’s good for
them. And presto: You’ve got yourself a conservative, big-tent
Republican Party – an organization led by principled people who know how
to govern and have the horses to win.
© 2009 North Star
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