It seems to me it is the responsibility of the national leadership of the conservative movement and the Republican Party to rally the nation around these goals, but it is the responsibility of a thousand candidates and activists to define them. Conservatism dominated politics in the 1990s and early 2000s because it was reinforced through substantive policy debates in the 1970s and ’80s. If Republicans want to win more elections, they have to start re-fighting the battle of ideas the way we did before successive victories made us soft.
The five principles: victory in the war on terror, fundamental tax reform, government re-imagination, constitutional jurisprudence, and a culture of life are big enough tents to host all sorts of substantive, internal debates. Questions like “What does victory in the war on terror look like?” and “If we had to create a health care or retirement system from scratch, what would it look like?” will never be asked, let alone answered by liberals. Conservatives are at their best – and do their best for our country – when they are hashing out the specific details of a concrete agenda to redesign our government.
Republicans are actually in an excellent position to embark on such a course right now. What with an unpopular president, an unorthodox presidential nominee, congressional conferences bottoming out in terms of their numbers of safe seats, and only a handful of well-known rising stars in the states, conventional wisdom says the Republican Party is a mess. I don’t see that at all. What pundits see as disunity can be very easily transformed into creative competition.
House Republicans remain the core of Washington conservatism. And even under the dictatorial methods of Speaker Pelosi, they can and should promote specific legislative alternatives to every major bill the Democrats put forward. Without the responsibilities of a majority party, minority Republicans in the House can work with leading conservatives from around the country to devise specific reforms of our health care, immigration, budget, energy, and tax systems. They can force the Democrats to go on the record about the war on terror, marriage, and the proper role of faith in the public square. Through the vote you regain your stature and credibility. Meanwhile, individual candidates from around the country can interpret conservative principles to best suit their own districts.
Senate Republicans, and Republican Senate candidates, can and should do the same. The McCain campaign already is developing its own agenda, independent from either congressional Republicans or the White House. Meanwhile, grassroots organizations and independent groups should be informing all of the above and activating their members to do the same. This shouldn’t be feared, but embraced.
Indeed, for a conservative agenda to be truly robust and practical, it must be driven both inside and outside the official channels of political institutions. As important as House, Senate, and campaign Republicans are, independent conservative groups, coalitions, and activists are our movement’s spine and sinew. Official Republicans should encourage outside organizations to help develop and drive a new conservative agenda. Furthermore, these outside conservative organizations and activists should work as closely together as possible to unify conservatives of all stripes from all over the country to redesign our government, secure our nation, and promote a culture of family and life in our society. Candidates and campaigns aren’t enough. To be successful, any new conservative agenda may be defined from the top-down, but it must be driven from the bottom-up.
Only through such an inside-outside strategy of ideas and mobilization can conservatism find itself again, drive an agenda for a Constitutional government, regain the mantle of the “Party of Ideas,” and deserve, at least, another chance at national leadership.
The country has not lost its intuitive faith in conservatism; it is simply waiting for a reason to restore its trust in conservatives.
Tom DeLay is the former House Majority Leader, the second ranking leader in the United States House of Representatives, and co-author of No Retreat, No Surrender: One American's Fight.