John Tierney: Can the GOP be saved?
- September 2, 2006 - The New York Times
Can This Party Be Saved? By JOHN TIERNEY
Republicans in Washington did not abandon their principles lightly. When
they embraced "compassionate conservatism," when they started spending like
Democrats, most of them didn't claim to suddenly love big government.
No, they were just being practical. The party's strategists explained that
the small-government mantra didn't cut it with voters anymore. Forget
eliminating the Department of Education — double its budget and expand its
power. Stop complaining about middle-class entitlements — create a new one
for prescription drugs. Instead of obsessing about government waste, bring
home the bacon.
But as long as we're being practical, what do Republicans have to show for
their largess? Passing the drug benefit and the No Child Left Behind Act
gave them a slight boost in the polls on those issues, but not for long.
When voters this year were asked in a New York Times/CBS News Poll which
party they trusted to handle education and prescription drugs, the
Republicans scored even worse than they did before those bills had been
Meanwhile, they've developed a new problem: holding the party together. As
Ryan Sager argues in his new book, "The Elephant in the Room," the G.O.P. is
sacrificing its future by breaking up the coalition that brought it to
A half-century ago, during the Republicans' days in the wilderness, a
National Review columnist named Frank Meyer championed a strategy that came
to be known as fusionism. He appealed to traditionalist conservatives to
work with libertarians. It wasn't an easy sell. The traditionalists wanted
to rescue America from decadence, while the libertarians just wanted be left
alone to pursue their own happiness — which often sounded to the
traditionalists like decadence.
Meyer acknowledged the fears that libertarianism could lead to "anarchy and
nihilism," but he also saw the dangers of traditionalists' schemes for moral
"If the state is endowed with the power to enforce virtue," he wrote, "the
men who hold that power will enforce their own concepts as virtuous." The
path to both freedom and virtue was the fusionist compromise: smaller
The coalition started with Barry Goldwater but persevered to elect Ronald
Reagan and take over Congress. But then Republicans' faith in small
government waned, partly because they discovered the perks of incumbency,
and partly because they were outmaneuvered by Bill Clinton, who took their
ideas (welfare reform, a balanced budget) and embarrassed them during the
government shutdown of 1995.
The shutdown didn't permanently traumatize the public. In poll after poll
since then, respondents have preferred smaller government and fewer
services. But the experience scared Republicans so much that they became
Soccer moms were promised social programs; the religious right got moral
rhetoric and cash for faith-based initiatives. Meyer's warnings about
enforcing virtue were forgotten, along with the traditional Republican
preference for states' rights. It became a federal responsibility to preach
sexual abstinence to teenagers and stop states from legalizing euthanasia,
medical marijuana and, worst of all, gay marriage.
Big-government conservatism has helped bring some votes to the G.O.P.,
particularly in the South. But as Sager writes: "It's not as if the
Republican Party could do much better in the South at this point; it's not
really the ideal region to which to pander."
The practical panderer should look West — not to the Coast, which is
reliably blue, but to the purple states in the interior. Sager notes that a
swing of just 70,000 votes in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico would have
cost Bush the last election, and that he lost ground in the Southwest
between 2000 and 2004.
The interior West is growing quickly, thanks to refugees from California
seeking affordable housing. These Westerners have been voting Republican in
presidential elections, but have also gone for Democratic governors. They
tend to be economic conservatives and cultural liberals. They've legalized
medical marijuana in Nevada, Colorado and Montana. They're more tolerant of
homosexuality than Southerners are, and less likely to be religious.
They're suspicious of moralists and of any command from Washington, whether
it's a gun-control law or an educational mandate. In Colorado and Utah,
they've exempted themselves from No Child Left Behind.
They're small-government conservatives who would have felt at home in the
old fusionist G.O.P. But now they're up for grabs, just like the party's
principles.-- end --
Director of Chapter Development,
Republican Liberty Caucus USA
"Those who have been once intoxicated with power and have derived any
kind of emolument from it can never willingly abandon it."--Edmund Burke
Can the GOP be saved? A better question is, should the GOP in its current permutation be saved? I was immediately alarmed by the president's choice of the term "compassionate conservatism." I knew then that he was pandering and that it could only mean more entitlement spending. It's like saying, "My! Look at the pretty skunk!" Calling it pretty isn't going to make it any less stinky. By adding the prescription drug benefits and not eliminating the Department of Education, the president and his advisors were perhaps hoping to give the Democrats programs they'd embrace in exchange for their support of the legislation needed to prosecute the "War on Terror," (regrettably, another poor choice of words). What folly! Democrats will never be bought by Republican pitch men. It is sad to say that the reverse is not also true. Should a party that doesn't play to win be saved?
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- I always found 'compassionate conservatism' more than a little creepy
myself, but I expect a lot of hot air and silliness from my
politicians. The question is whether they're rotten to the core or
just have a little surface mildew going on. And BTW - true story -
skunks smell good to me, rather like a tasty garlicky salami.
>Can the GOP be saved? A better question is, should the GOP in its--
>current permutation be saved? I was immediately alarmed by the
>president's choice of the term "compassionate conservatism." I knew
>then that he was pandering and that it could only mean more
>entitlement spending. It's like saying, "My! Look at the pretty
>skunk!" Calling it pretty isn't going to make it any less stinky. By
>adding the prescription drug benefits and not eliminating the
>Department of Education, the president and his advisors were perhaps
>hoping to give the Democrats programs they'd embrace in exchange for
>their support of the legislation needed to prosecute the "War on
>Terror," (regrettably, another poor choice of words). What folly!
>Democrats will never be bought by Republican pitch men. It is sad to
>say that the reverse is not also true. Should a party that doesn't
>play to win be saved?
Tasty Thoughts from the Elitist Pig