Much has been made of the Republican Party’s lost way – perhaps too much. Most everyone agrees you can’t run as the party of fiscal restraint, personal liberty and family values, then govern as the party of big spending, intrusive government and cynical values without losing more than you win.
But lost credibility as the Party of conservative principle is the easiest of our problems to solve. It may take a while, but that ground will be reclaimed naturally as we consistently match our behavior with our rhetoric. And as the Democrats continue to over-reach.
A more difficult problem is one of structure. The various members of our Republican coalition seem to have more to argue about than they do to unify around. It’s a problem we’ve refused to recognize since its genesis nearly 20 years ago. Now, it’s become a large scale crisis.
Throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s – during the alignment of the modern Republican Party – America had a clear enemy in the Soviet Union, a ready foil for conservatives to unify against. A Republican Party that included the Lafollete progressive and the Christian conservative; the cultural traditionalist and the fiscal libertarian; the country club elitist and the military interventionist could unite comfortably around the proposition that acting on conservative principles would ensure American victory over the Soviet menace.
With perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, the unity of purpose around which we found common cause started looking a lot less important than the more narrowly held issues with which we defined our particular factions.
The varied and diverse rings that together made up our Republican trunk began to splinter. Behavior failed to follow rhetoric. People lost track of what it meant to be a Republican. Or, more to the point, Republicans lost track.
The resulting breakdown was not readily apparent for two reasons. First, the Democrats weren’t in any better shape than we were. By the end of President Reagan’s tenure, Democrats were a party desperately looking for a message. Second, since we didn’t have the stomach to face our strategic problem, we turned to perfecting the tactical means of winning campaigns. For the most part, we out-maneuvered Democrats with better television, better talk radio, better targeting and better turnout.