Months of prognostication about the pitiful performance at the polls predicted for Republicans has now given way to prescriptions about the direction of the party. Should the GOP move to the center, the right, or the left? Truth be told, Republicans right now are just going around in circles. The party's own confusion and incoherence about what it stands for will ensure that it continues to wander in the political wilderness; it must once again take up as its guide the principles of liberty and limited government.
How could the Republicans lose in the face of such a strong economy? Disgust over the Bush administration's confused, incoherent and unsuccessful approach to the war in Iraq certainly was a central factor in the GOP's defeat. So was the perception that the Republicans were corrupt big spenders, which many of them were. Theirs is seen more and more as the party of big government. The rejection of the party itself cut across ideological lines. Liberal Sen. Lincoln Chafee—who got a favorable rating from 60 percent of voters in exit polls—was defeated, as was liberal Rep. Nancy Johnson. Conservative Sens. Rick Santorum and George Allen also lost, as did Rep. J.D. Hayworth. Further, many newly-elected Democrats are moderates within their party.
Of course, what is missing from the GOP is a central defining principle. President Bush, as well as Republicans in Congress, deserves much of the blame. Bush is not a man of principles. This is not to say that he's not committed to certain beliefs and policies, whether about the war or on the domestic front. But a principle is a coherent guide by which to consistently judge the wisdom of a proposed policy or action. Bush takes a Chinese menu approach to government. Tax cuts and partial Social Security privatization seemed like good ideas to him. So did a new, huge medical entitlement, new environmental regulations, and restrictions on political speech. Allowing drilling for more oil in Alaska seemed like a good idea, as did subsidies for inefficient fuels. Politicians must often make compromises on particular pieces of legislation, but they at least should have underlying principles to guide their direction. There's no coherent direction to the Bush policies. Is it any wonder that people are confused?
Consider what made Republicans successful in the past. Two elements constituted the winning political coalition of the Goldwater-Reagan party. The "libertarian" faction consisted of optimists who saw the potential for individual achievement and happiness if only men and women were left free. They thus favored capitalism and personal liberty, and saw the purpose of government as the preservation of these values. The traditional conservatives feared the unbridled individualism of libertarians. But this fear also meant that they feared the dangers of big government. Thus these two factions could agree that the rule of law, constitutionally-limited government, and checks and balances were necessary barriers to the abuse of political power. Their particular policies were often guided by these principles, which provided the basis for a winning—if at times uneasy—political coalition.
But the Republican Party also harbored social conservatives who wanted more than a government that just left them alone. They wanted the government to mandate morality, often based on religious faith, as in the case of sexual mores. The party paid lip service to this constituency but implemented few of their anti-liberty policy prescriptions.
Under Bush, a self-styled "compassionate conservative," this faction gained strength and was pandered to with policies such as the faith-based initiative. (Many religious conservatives who were also traditionalists actually rejected such expansions of government.) Also under Bush came the rise of the neoconservatives, social engineers from the Right who explicitly rejected the limited government philosophy. Newly-defeated Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum drew from the most toxic elements in the philosophical stew served up by the GOP when he said, "This whole idea of personal autonomy—I don’t think that most conservatives hold that point of view,” and when he explicitly rejected the idea that the government should stay out of the economy and the bedroom when he criticized what he labeled the "libertarianish right."
We saw the results of this approach to government at the polls in 2006.
The only moral direction for the Republican Party to take is not toward the center, left, or right but toward individual liberty.
The battle today, as in decades past, is between two visions of America. One is of a country of individuals who are capable of living their own lives and thus should be left free to do as they please, to make money or families or whatever they want as long as they take responsibility for their actions and deal with their fellows based on mutual consent. This, the vision of America's Founders, sees a government limited to protecting our liberties. In such a robust Republic, we all are enriched, educated, enlightened, and inspired by the productive efforts and achievements of our fellow citizens.
The other vision is of a country of whining, servile subjects who can't tie their shoes or wipe their noses without government help. The paternalist state confiscates and redistributes wealth and limits liberty for “our own good.” We as individuals are not and should not be autonomous. In such a country, individuals see their fellows as either cash cows to be milked or dangerous predators to be feared. They are motivated by envy for achievers or guilt for their achievements.
Republicans more and more have joined Democrats in this second cruel vision.
The Republicans left in Congress certainly will clean their leadership house. They then must decide a course of action for the next two years. One would be to have tea with Nancy Pelosi to work out further ways to take our money and liberty, accept the premises of the enemies of freedom, and go further down the path that has led them to electoral defeat. The other would be to return to the Goldwater-Reagan principles of their party and of the Republic, founded on the right of each individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.