During this election year, and in the presidential election year of 2012, Republicans will not only do battle with the Democrats but with each other. How they handle both battles may have more to do with the outcomes on election days than do the polls showing public disenchantment with the Democrats.
A long-standing battle within the Republican Party, going back at least as far as the 1940s, is between those who want the party to clearly differentiate itself from the Democrats and those who seek a broader appeal by catering to a wider spectrum of social and ideological groups.
The "smart money" advocates a "big tent" and deplores those who want a clearer adherence to the kinds of ideas espoused by Ronald Reagan. What the "smart money" fails to explain is how Reagan won two landslide presidential elections in a row.
He certainly didn't do it by trying to act like Democrats. That's how the Republicans later turned off their own supporters, without gaining enough other voters to keep from being wiped out by the Democrats in two consecutive elections.
There is no way that Ronald Reagan could have won two landslide elections in a row if the only votes he got came from hard-core conservatives. He obviously got the votes of other people who liked what he said when he was running for the presidency and liked what he had done when he was up for re-election.
The big fear today is that the Republicans might offend Hispanics by supporting some controversial policies, such as border control or ending bilingual education. This is a very strong fear, now that Hispanics are the largest minority in the country.
But there is no way to follow any consistent principle without offending some members of virtually every racial, ethnic, regional or economic group. Yet, even on a very controversial issue like abortion, the same voters have at various times elected candidates who are "pro-life" and candidates who are "pro-choice," even if candidates who tried to waffle on the issue may not have done well.
Most voters have enough common sense to know that they are not likely to find candidates with whom they agree 100 percent on every issue. One of Ronald Reagan's great strengths was his ability to explain his position, so that even people who did not agree with everything he said could respect his principles-- which required that they first knew what his principles were.
When you try to waffle and be all things to all people, you can end up being nothing to anybody. That is where the "smart money" crowd have gotten the Republicans in recent years.
All Hispanics are not the same. A surprisingly large share of Hispanic voters are opposed to so-called "bilingual education," and not all Hispanics are advocates of open borders. If Republicans can just make inroads into the Hispanic vote, by appealing to those with similar values, that can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Of course particular groups-- racial, regional or whatever-- are especially interested in how a candidate's principles will affect them. Here is where the Republicans have fallen down completely in recent years, even though they have a strong hand to play, even with minorities, if they would only play that hand, instead of trying to pander in transparent ways that only reduce their credibility.
Minorities have been the biggest losers from numerous liberal policies promoted by the Democrats-- whether in maintaining the monopoly of failing public schools for the sake of the teachers' unions, restricting the building of housing for the sake of the environmentalists, turning criminals loose in minority communities for the sake of the American Civil Liberties Union and like-minded "progressives" or artificially expanding unemployment among minority young people with minimum wage laws.
All that needs to be explained-- and explaining is what Republicans have been neglecting for years, except for Ronald Reagan, who knew that you can have your big tent and your principles at the same time, but only if you took the trouble to make your case to the public in plain English.
Republicans have the time to do some real homework on issues and on explaining issues. Whether they will use that time for that purpose is the big question for them-- and for the country.