The proper path for the Republican party lies somewhere between changing our entire agenda and standing steadfastly on everything. Opinions will differ on the best way forward, as we have seen in the week and a half since the sucker punch of Election Day.
Most conservatives seem to be coping well. We spent a lot of time during the campaign wondering if America as we recognize it would survive a second Obama term. Ever the pragmatists, we now seem committed to doing our part to minimize the damage.
But as we seek to mitigate the harmful effects of Obama 2.0 on our nation, we simultaneously look inward, for answers on how to win back the White House on Election Day 2016 (which is November 8, but who’s counting?)
Does that involve moderating our positions? Surrendering our core values? Or simply repackaging the positions we have always taken?
I believe it depends on the issue.
Let’s begin with the complete folly of cashing in the chips of conservatism. There are plenty of moderates in the party who would love nothing more than to see the whole Republican structure move toward them, zipping its lips on social issues, tossing the belief that America can be a force for good around the world and softening that harsh notion that spending and taxes are abhorrently high.
I believe parties should stand for something. I don’t see Democrats wringing their hands in extended introspections about moving toward the middle. Especially in this era, the left doubles down on its ideology and dares opponents to prove them wrong at the ballot box.
I confess a grudging respect for this-- not ideologically, but strategically. Centrist Democrats have a choice: find a way to back a party that recognizes its job is the purveyance of liberalism, or go be Republicans.
I would make the same offer to any Republican bellyaching about how far right the party has tacked. Are they kidding? After FDR and LBJ twisted the national rudder toward the expansionism that still poisons us, it will take three Reagans to turn it back around.
The ascendancy of the tea party-- or, as it should now be known, consistent conservatism-- is just the beginning of what will be necessary fort generations if we are to ever return to the size and scope of government the founders would smile on.
The only way to walk that path, of course, is to actually win elections. This is achieved by crafting an agenda that is attractive to a majority of voters, and hitching that agenda to candidates who give it a voice that attracts new adherents while repelling as few as possible.
The cruel reality of the election of 2012 is the millions of voters who agree with many Republican ideas but voted for Obama anyway, or did not vote at all. Success is found in compelling these people to vote for us.
Many are already socially conservative, especially in minority communities. The message of protecting the unborn and standing up for heterosexual marriage is a winner, not only in conservative America, but in middle America.
It is crazy that we actually have to teach Civics 101 to millions of people, but if we do, we do. So get ready to spend four years telling people that while our candidates are going to be socially conservative, abortion and gay marriage are properly settled in the states, not the Oval Office, and from abortions to contraception, their availability is not a White House issue, but who pays for it is. Then we pivot to things that are a President’s daily concern.
National security and the economy are at the top of that list. It is impossible to know how war-weary America will be in 2016, but we can never mitigate our high ground as the party that seeks to speak truth to evil around the world. I pray it will not take an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel or another 9/11 to open our eyes to the dangers of losing our focus in this regard.
There can always be thoughtful debate over where to mobilize American troops and how to maximize the deterrent effect of our defense spending. But there should be no doubt that our party, and our 2016 nominee, will have no more of “leading from behind” or further mortgaging the American leadership role which has made the world safer for well over a century.
While that is a message seasoned over the passage of years, we face a fast-approaching economic turnstile which could define the party for most of the days until the off-year vote of 2014, if not the entire remaining Obama presidency.
Amid all the shrill talk of fiscal “cliffs,” clarity is vital: Republicans either are, or are not, willing to cave in to people who say some of us are not taxed enough and we do not spend enough.
We must say no to such obscenity. We can talk all day, or all year, about how to package this so that women or voters of color or the youngsters will grasp why we do this, but along the way we simply cannot compromise on this. Pollster and word maven Frank Luntz will tell you that “wasteful Washington spending” is a term that will get three-quarters of America to nod in approval. It is about time we find a way to skillfully connect with those people.
So is there no issue that is ripe for reconsideration? Is our entire mission to stay the course ideologically, but repackage?
There is a growing choir in American conservatism that is changing a few pages in the hymnal. We are realizing that on the issue of immigration, the familiar strains of mass deportation are getting us clobbered.
Much of the criticism is grossly dishonest. From strong borders to deporting lawbreakers to refusing to invite further illegals with the DREAM Act or guest worker programs, there is not one shred of hostility toward Hispanics or immigrants in general.
Conservative opposition has been based on the rule of law. We have turned our heads as millions have streamed illegally into a country that cannot afford to absorb them. Forgiving and forgetting are hard under such circumstances.
But that is apparently what large majorities want to do, and they are not all liberal. From a business community that values the labor force, to a broad slice of the public that cannot stomach banishing those who have come here for a better life, America clearly wants to find a way to allow illegals to work and raise families along a path to citizenship.
So we have a choice. If we stick with the idea of rounding up every illegal alien and shipping them back to their mother countries, complete with their America-loving teenagers with 4.0 grade-point averages, we will commit electoral suicide.
But this is not like the morally-based social issues, where laxitude is out of the question, or economic issues, where to compromise is to slit the nation’s fiscal throat.
As a nation, we can have whatever immigration laws we like. I have spent years backing serious consequences for violating America’s borders, and I do not easily give ground on that view.
But there is a deal I am willing to strike.
My opposition to guest worker programs and the DREAM Act and various other gifts to illegals has been the certain magnet they will create for future millions who will follow in their footsteps.
Only one thing will stop that. Only one thing can allow principled conservatives to seek common ground on a path to accommodate illegals who are already here.
That is a border that actually means something.
This is a tall order. It may require vast increases in border patrol, or long miles of walls, real or virtual. We can start talking about that right now.
But if the talk is serious, and unencumbered by the nonsense that even strong borders are somehow anti-Hispanic or anti-immigrant, maybe we can find consensus on what to do with the illegals who are here already.
For too long, we have ignored our immigration laws to curry favor with Latinos and liberals of every other race. If we want to change those laws so that they can be respected again, let the process begin with a border that does what borders are supposed to do.
Once we achieve this, we may well want to make it easier to immigrate legally. If we are actually beginning to stem the tide of new illegals, that is well worth considering, as long as we are making clear that the path to citizenship for past illegals will involve some consequences, some taxes or penalties and an obligation to assimilate through English proficiency.
This complete package creates a landscape of laws that can be widely respected and actually enforced. And it could be part of a message that will open the door for millions of voters of every race and age and sex, to consider Republicans they would otherwise reject.