April 14th, 2007

Conservatism’s Crossroad

A version of this blog post appeared on Politico.com on April 14, 2007.

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference is the mecca for the Republican base—the people who man the phone banks, knock on doors, plant homemade signs on lawns and bedeck their bumpers with stickers. In theory, what’s good for CPAC is good for the GOP.

Alas, as last month’s confab made clear, the nexus between the conservative movement and the Republican Party is wobbly. Whereas conservatives are ideologues who concern themselves with issues, Republicans are politicians who focus on re-election. The two are not mutually exclusive—in fact, the competition is healthy—but something is wrong when many conservatives think their elected officials would exercise greater fidelity to the cause as the minority rather than the majority.

In short, the Right is at a crossroad. On one hand are those who have inured themselves to the relentless growth of government. Such people no longer want to downsize federal agencies but to harness them for their own ends. On the other hand are those who believe that the principles of limited government—fiscal discipline, a market economy, decentralization—are still worth fighting for. Such people read Goldwater, quote Reagan, and cite the Contract with America.

If the GOP wants to regain the congressional majority, it must therefore make a choice: should we try to co-opt the Democratic agenda, or should we hold fast to our leave-me-alone, do-it-yourself ideals?

To be sure, it’s one thing to pontificate from the sidelines, and it’s another to explain to one’s constituents why it’s wrong that their neighbors’ farm, but not their own museum, just received a million-dollar grant. Indeed, the right answer requires mettle—which is to say that it requires principles.

Principles matter not only because they establish a framework for thinking, but also because they distinguish one party from another. A lack of principles explains the CNN poll taken after the November midterms that astonishingly found more than 60% of Americans now believe the GOP to be the party of “big government.”

They’re wrong, of course, since in a contest for who can better exploit the resources of the state, conservatives will always lose. The reason: liberals are more consistent in such advocacy.

So, instead of adopting a me-too approach, Republicans should view the 110th Congress as an opportunity to reorient and revitalize themselves—to reconnect with CPACers. The solution is to return to first principles, the ones that are as easy to explain—government is the problem, not the solution—as they are commonsensical.

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