DeMint Was Right
Senator Jim DeMint created a lot of controversy when he said that he “would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs.” Liberals pointed to this comment as proof that the Republican party is effectively marginalized, while conservatives sighed sadly and tried to distance themselves from DeMint. Virtually no one agreed with him.
They should have. Because he’s right.
Everyone, at least everyone outside the conservative movement, thinks that the best way for the GOP to become relevant again is to expand the party’s base to make it attractive to every voter. The defection of Arlen Specter is seen as a major problem for the party—if moderates like Specter continue to leave, the thinking goes, who will be left?
One problem with this line of thought—it ignores the fact that not so long ago the Republican party was in a situation very close to the one DeMint rejected. The Republican party didn’t have sixty Senators, but it did have fifty-five, and while those Senators were not wholly without principles, they didn’t have very many.
That didn’t work out. The Republican government was fairly moderate—they threw the occasional bone to their conservative base, but mostly spent their time on moderate projects that weren’t so different from what the Democrats would support.
And they got voted out. Moderation wasn’t the only reason the GOP lost Congress, and later the presidency. Corruption was an issue, and President Bush was oddly incapable of effectively communicating his plan for Iraq. And Republican fatigue was an issue too—after ten years of Republicans running the government, many voters wanted something new.
But a large part of the GOP’s decline arose because it didn’t have any real message. You can’t play the social conservative card forever, especially when you deliver as little in the way of results as the GOP did. And Bush’s confusing management and constantly shifting rationale for the Iraq War negated foreign policy as a viable issue for Republicans. Bush’s huge deficit meant that fiscal issues weren’t an option. The Republican party sold its soul for immediate electoral success—and it hurt them in the end.
Right now, the GOP’s situation is very close to the first one described by DeMint—they have more than 30 Senators, but not many more. And they have two possible ways of staging their comeback. The first is the popular choice, that they need to open the party up and make it attractive to the sort of voters who vote for Arlen Specter. The second is to try to build a strong foundation for the party on solid conservative principles.
American politics are usually pretty cyclical, so either strategy would probably work eventually. The question is which one would build a stronger, more enduring base for the party. And I think it obvious that the second option—using a small, ideologically consistent base to form the new shape of the party—would be healthier for the party in the long term.
That doesn’t mean that every Republican candidate has to be at least as conservative as (and preferably more conservative than) Rush Limbaugh. Moderates should have their place in the party. For example, Tom Ridge and Charlie Christ (both very moderate) will probably run for office again soon; both men are useful and should be encouraged. But Republicans should try to find strong conservatives to run whenever possible, and make it clear that the Republican party exists to advance conservative principles.
This approach will be difficult, and will require that the GOP change its basic way of thinking. It will also lose some voters, but will hopefully gain many more. If the Republican party doesn’t follow this prescription, they will become little more than Democrats Lite, and if they do that, they are ultimately doomed to irrelevancy.