A Conservative Party
Many, perhaps most, conservatives believe that if the Republican Party simply nominated true, pure ideological conservatives, then the party would be almost unstoppable in national elections. These people believe that the nominations of people like John McCain and George Bush are the primary reason that the Republican Party is in such dire straits. According to this line of thinking, a lack of conservatism is the only thing keeping the GOP out of power; a really conservative party would be massively popular, as most people would embrace conservative ideals.
This isn’t true. Conservatives don’t have enough influence to nominate a candidate within their own party. Does anybody think that they would have a better chance in the general election?
Many counter that argument by explaining that there were no conservatives to choose from, and that the movement’s only option was to pick the better of five (Giuliani, Thompson, Huckabee, Romney, McCain) evils.
Leaving aside the fact that Fred Thompson was pretty conservative, and that Duncan Hunter was impeccable from a conservative point of view, this argument leaves open the question of why no true conservatives stepped forward in 2000. Or 1996. Or 1992. Or 1988. If the conservative movement is so popular, why were the winners of those nominating contests moderates? Surely, if conservatism is such a sure win, at least one conservative should have stepped up.
Many conservatives invoke the name of Ronald Reagan as the ideal of the True Conservative who wins elections. Reagan was a great president. But he doesn’t quite live up to the legend conservatives have spun around his legacy. He was a) put in a wonderful position to win elections, and b) wasn’t a perfect conservative.
Few candidates could hope for a more advantageous position to run a campaign from than Reagan had in 1980. He was articulate, smart, and competent; Jimmy Carter was laughably lame. Carter was incapable of getting anything done, had seen the rise “stagflation”, and had been embarrassed by the Soviet Union and its allies in the field of foreign policy. It is somehow fitting that he is the only President to be attacked by a swimming rabbit—and to actually tell someone about it. (If a rabbit attacked you, wouldn’t you keep it quiet?).
In 1984, Reagan had to run against Walter Mondale, who was Carter’s vice president, which wasn’t exactly a glowing qualification. After being nominated, one of Mondale’s first moves was to inform the country that he his administration would raise taxes. Shockingly, he lost 49 states, even after using that little ploy.
It’s never easy to win a Presidential election. Reagan was a wonderful campaigner, and had the gift of communicating his principles effectively. He was a true conservative (Bill Buckley was one of his best friends), his conservatism helped him win. It just wasn’t the only factor—he ran against two of the weakest Democrats that party has ever nominated. Another conservative would have had a more difficult time against stronger candidates.
And Reagan, while the most conservative President we have ever had, wasn’t a perfect advocate of conservatism. He raised taxes during his second term, put through a law granting amnesty for illegal aliens, and, inexcusably, let the national debt balloon to an impossibly high level. He was a great man, and a great president, but not quite the paragon of conservatism that he is thought of as today.
Conservatism isn’t a guaranteed win because most people aren’t all that conservative. They are a mixture of the right and the left. They like the individual liberty, low taxes, and moral values that the GOP offers. They like the entitlements, environmentalism, and race consciousness found on the left. They do not have any coherent governing vision. Instead, the pick and choose, buffet style, among the policies formulated by the left and right.
That is not to imply that conservatism is not a good electoral strategy—just not the only winning one. Karl Rove’s “51%” strategy (which is to get 51% of the vote from as many different constituencies as possible, leaving aside any strict ideological foundation) works just as well, and probably better. (Bush beat two very tough opponents).
So what do conservatives do? It is foolish to assume that we can nominate a conservative candidate every four years, if the Republican Party itself is not conservative. Conservatives must remake the Republican Party. That means that conservative cannot afford to pay attention only to the Presidential race—state and local elections are just as important. If conservatives ensure that the political base of the party in solidly conservative, then the GOP will be a truly conservative party.