May 16, 2008
If The GOP Wants To Govern Like Democrats, Why Have a Separate Party?By Patrick J. Casey
Republicans are and should be panicked over the fact that conservative Democrat Travis Childers just defeated Republican Greg Davis by a margin of 54%-46% in the race for a vacant Mississippi congressional seat. That seat is in a conservative district that had given President Bush a 25-point margin of victory over John Kerry in 2004 - it never should have flipped Democrat. This is the third double-digit loss in a row for Republican candidates in conservative districts across the United States.
Childers' victory came one week after Rep. Don Cazayoux won a House seat in the Baton Rouge, La., area that had been in Republican hands for three decades. Over the winter, Rep. Bill Foster won an election in Illinois to succeed former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who had been in Congress more than 20 years.
What we're watching is the culmination of the decade-plus deterioration of the conservative Republican brand. Put simply, no one, including base conservatives, trusts the Republicans to govern effectively while following anything even faintly resembling a conservative platform.
That's unfortunate, since the only time that the Republicans really took the country by storm was in 1994, when they all ran on a set of firm, well established conservative values and issues. When the GOP strayed from that, falling back on the Democratic Party tradition of retaining power through excessive pork barrel spending and questionable ethical practices, they first lost seats - then lost their majorities. To regain what they have thrown away they must return to those conservative principles. If successful, they then must reject the compromising allure of power and promise to govern in the future as conservatives, not as the Democratic Party Lite.
Pollsters such as Gallup and the Pew Foundation have measured the voters' party identification for decades. Concurrent with the GOP's move away from conservative governing principals has been the increase in voters' self-identification as either being a Democrat or someone who leans Democrat, with a comparable decrease in self-identification with the Republicans. Is that merely because of changing demographics, as many political scientists suggest? Or is it because there have been no national leaders that continually challenge the Democrats on an ideological basis and promote widespread conservatism in the Republican ranks? The last nationally recognized GOP leader that did that was Newt Gingrich - ten years ago. Without such leadership, without such an enunciated conservative agenda for people to believe in, without a Republican Party that does what it promises, is it not natural for voters to wander - looking for something else to believe?
The aforementioned disparity between self-identified Democrats and Republicans doesn't fully explain the losses suffered by the GOP in 2006. The Dems had to run conservatives to win their majority that year. They had to run conservatives to win the three most recent House special elections. Isn't the natural home of many of those voters who elected conservative Democrats really the Republican Party, rather than the party of Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama? The GOP's problems have gotten so bad that even a prominent national conservative, Sean Hanitty, is now publicly speaking of his plan to leave the GOP and re-register in New York's Conservative Party.
That conservatism is no longer an effective belief system and governing method for the Republicans is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without anyone in the GOP publicly promoting conservative ideology and a true conservative agenda as a solution to our problems, how do we know that it won't work? When it's been tried in the past, it's attracted enthusiastic supporters and voters - and been quite successful.
Waiting for another Ronald Reagan is foolish - he was one of a kind. But there are new conservative leaders on the horizon, such as Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. The problem is that up and coming national leaders like Jindal are in the future, not present. The current GOP leadership is merely treading water. The House Leadership just announced their "new" message in the wake of the GOP's special election losses: "Change You Deserve". Unfortunately, their message sounds suspiciously similar to the message that the Democrats used to win in 2006 and are working on today. And lost upon the Republican leadership is the irony that the faces behind their latest "change" are the same faces that "changed" the GOP from the majority party to the minority two years ago. Voters will recognize that.
The national GOP has fallen for the media lie that voters across America want a 'moderate', as opposed to a conservative, Republican Party. Unfortunately, that's also the philosophy behind the Presidential campaign of John McCain. McCain might very well become the next President, but it will be more because of the inadequacies of his opponent than any wellspring of support for his governing philosophy or ideology.
This moderation trend is nothing new, nor is the Republicans' refusal to deal with it. By their actions, or inactions, the Republican leadership has permitted the Democrats and the media to define down the GOP, recreating the word "conservative" as a pejorative. Think family values and the image is of Mark Foley and Vito Fossella. Think wasteful pork barrel and earmark spending - and the image is of Ted Stevens. Think corruption and the public thinks Randy Cunningham. Think "against tax cuts" and the image is of ... John McCain.
All of these issues define the Republicans as a party that promises to both reform government and to address the major problems that the country faces today, but delivers no more and acts no better than Democrats. As such, are we supposed to be surprised that the voters would rather have the real Democrats, rather than the fake?
Republicans, and conservatives in particular, won't be able to benefit much from their Presidential candidate's coattails this year either. For an example, just look at Senator McCain's newly launched climate change tour. In a national poll conducted by Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg released earlier this month, only 4% of respondents replied that the environment as a whole was one of the most important issues in this election. More surprisingly, only 6% of Democrats thought so! So why is McCain so focused on climate change? Because it is one of the mainstream media's pet issues, and McCain is trying to get in the media's good graces again. By doing so, and prominently embracing issues that the Democrats own nationwide, McCain feels that he'll attract some swing votes.
That's not going to work. The media will never be in John McCain's corner during a Presidential general election, no matter how hard he tries. They will be firmly in Obama's back pocket, and will be the primary enablers for Howard Dean's upcoming viscous attack machine against McCain. And the voters who view global warming as a major election issue? They're so far Left that they'll be repulsed from voting for McCain by his other stances on issues such as the War in Iraq.
So what other good might come of John McCain's tack to the left? Will his road to 'moderation' help Republicans overall this fall? To answer that, I'll just relay something that Fox News' Carl Cameron said in his report from 5/13/08 on Brit Hume's show about McCain's global warming tour. Cameron quoted a McCain aide on the candidate's plan to distance himself from the GOP and President Bush by Election Day:
Seeing as this statement was made in the context of the Senator's climate change tour, it's safe to assume that McCain isn't talking about moving the image of the party to the right. How that will serve to help other Republicans this fall escapes me, unless McCain's real plan is to remake the party in the image of himself and former politicians like former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. While that does take care of most ethical issues, it throws the rest of Republican conservatism under the bus. If he does that, the GOP will be in the minority for generations to come.
McCain will be all over the map this fall - conservative on some important issues like the war and judges, but liberal on other issues such as the global warming, immigration, and perhaps even taxes. The past few years has shown that such vacillation - such an inability to enunciate a clear set of conservative governing principles across the policy spectrum - might work for an individual GOP candidate here and there, but represents disaster for the overall political party.
John McCain might win this crucially important Presidential election, since the alternative would be disastrous for the United States and the world. The war issue alone, and the ramifications worldwide and domestically if we should lose, should be enough to bring the conservative base out to vote for the Senator in an election that many of them might otherwise be tempted to skip. But the message so far from McCain to down-ballot Republicans this fall is clear: "Don't expect any help from me, unless you are prepared to repudiate much of your conservative beliefs".
That's not the way for the GOP to rebuild the party. And that's certainly not the way for the GOP to win.
[Editor's note: See also Rep. Tom Davis' memorandum on the Republican Party's situation now.]