Can the GOP Recover Its Principles?

Today, Politico Arena asks:

How helpful is it to the GOP to have its chairman say the party’s “credibility snapped” while in power and it became “just another party of Big Government?”

My response:

If GOP chairman Michael Steele means it, it’s very helpful for him to say that the party’s “credibility snapped” while in power and it became “just another party of Big Government?”  You first have to recognize a problem if you want to solve it.

For better or worse, we’ve had two major parties for most of our history, and that’s not likely to change any time soon.  At least since the New Deal, the Democratic Party has been the party of government, especially over economic affairs.  By contrast, since the Goldwater revolution of 1964, the Republican Party has claimed to be the party of individual liberty and limited government, although that claim was often undermined by calls for restricting certain personal liberties, and the party was slow, as were parts of the Democratic Party, in supporting the civil rights movement.  But broadly speaking, in our recent history the two parties have been distinguished, nominally, by their different conceptions of the proper role of government.

At no time was that contrast more sharply drawn than during the Reagan administration.  Yet even then there were internal struggles between the Reagan people and the Bush people.  Recall that when Bush ‘41 became president, he called for a “kinder and gentler nation,” which was a slap at Reagan’s limited government principles.  And eventually, of course, he broke his “no new taxes” pledge.

After Bush lost the presidency, the Gingrich “Contract with America,” leading to the Republican take-over of Congress for the first time in 40 years, was supposed to return the party to a principled, limited government path.  It did so briefly, in those heady days of 1995, but by the end of the year the siren song of government power was calling and the party started its slow slide, at the end of which it was barely distinguishable from the Democratic Party.

Thus, it was no accident that in 2000 the party selected as its standard-bearer George W. Bush, who had been utterly absent from the intellectual ferment of the Goldwater-Reagan years.  Not unlike his father, Bush ‘43 stood for “compassionate conservatism,” a slogan ripe with promise for government programs.  And the Republican Congress, now rudderless, was anxious to supply them.  If the party stood for anything, it was incumbency protection.  What better example than the McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform” bill, which Bush signed while saying he thought it was unconstitutional.  What’s the Constitution among friends?

But rudderless, unprincipled government could not go on forever, and so in time it came crashing down upon the Republican time-servers – and the real party of government took over.  Immutable principles, however, such as you can’t get something for nothing, favor no party, and so Democrats too are facing, or will soon face, the harsh realities that flow from abandoning political and economic discipline.  If the Republican Party can recover the fundamental principles that are captured in the nation’s founding documents, and take them to the people, it will then fall to us to decide what we want.  And if we too believe in something for nothing, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for the consequences that follow.  But at least we will have had a choice, which we have not had in recent years.  So, yes, Mr. Steele’s call for a return to principle is helpful.