When Republican Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party last week, politicians and pundits everywhere heralded the move as another sign that the GOP was "too conservative." Said liberal Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, "If the Republican Party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle."
Presumably "the middle," a pasture that so many Democrats, liberal Republicans, and others believe the GOP should now graze, is a place free of "reckless" government-slashing rhetoric. These critics believe Obama is president, the Democrats are in power, and Republicans who refuse to "change" with the rest of the country will face inevitable defeat for the foreseeable future. The Republican Party is simply "too conservative," they say. Nothing could be more untrue.
What exactly did voters reject in 2008 that makes for such a dark future for conservatives? A government-slashing Congress? A president that cracked down on illegal immigration? A Christian right, gun zealot? No, they rejected George W. Bush, a big government, amnesty-proposing president, who was occasionally socially conservative in his rhetoric, but rarely in practice. Between the war and spending, America soured on Bush for reasons that had nothing to do with conservatism.
Does anyone really believe voters are now enamored with Barack Obama because they despise conservatism and love liberalism? Americans aren't that ideological. After 100 days in office, Obama's popularity remains high, with a significant majority in a recent Gallup poll saying he is doing a good job. But when the same poll asks "what is the worst thing Barack Obama has done since he became president?," the number one answer is "stimulus spending," the president's most ambitious and most defining piece of legislation to date.
If the GOP must move to the middle to win elections, exactly what do Republicans gain by backing massive spending increases which even those who support Obama are uncomfortable with? Why is becoming more like the Democrats considered the path to GOP success? What's the point of even having a Republican Party?
The GOP would do well to flee from the consensus middle and take a hard right on the top issues that continue to concern Americans across the political spectrum — out-of-control spending, outrageous debt, and our ever-expanding federal government. In other words, the Republican Party should actually become the party of small government it has always pretended to be.
But not everyone agrees, most notably Sen. Lindsey Graham. According to The New York Times, "Graham scoffed at the notion that the party was suffering because it was not conservative enough. 'Do you really believe that we lost 18-to-34-year-olds by 19 percent, or we lost Hispanic voters, because we are not conservative enough? This is a ridiculous line of thought. The truth is we lost young people because our Republican brand is tainted."
Graham is right. The Republican brand is tainted — by Bush Republicans like Graham.
While the 18-to-34-year-olds came out in force for Obama, the most conservative Republican presidential candidate in the last election ran a campaign defined in large part by its youth support. As usual, the old, white, Christian Republican base dutifully gravitated to conventional, Bush Republicans like McCain, but the government-slashing radical Ron Paul drew support from young and old; Republicans, Democrats, and independents; whites, blacks and Hispanics; Christians and non-believers. The much discussed, increasingly shrinking GOP is the party of lukewarm, establishment men like Graham, McCain, and Bush — not fiery conservatives like Ron Paul.
But those who believe the GOP must move to the middle are right about one thing: Thundering on and on about abortion, gay marriage, and family values at the national level is political suicide, precisely because too many Americans who might be attracted to a limited government message would be repulsed by any politician they perceive as wanting to dictate their personal lives.
Once again, Paul's example is the best solution. This pro-life, conservative Christian believes states should decide social issues free of federal interference. Gay newlyweds in Vermont would have nothing to fear from a staunchly libertarian GOP. And neither would conservative Christians in South Carolina, who would gain more from a smaller, less intrusive government than the type of pro-Christian, big government the religious right typically supports. In any move to the middle, Republicans are more likely to find a graveyard instead of salvation. The GOP will never out-Obama, Obama.
However, it is not clear that voters are prepared to accept big government as the long-term American way. If a majority ever decides to reject it, they will require a GOP far removed from the current, middle-of-the-road consensus of both parties. And only a Republican Party that eventually opposes big government — and is not a part of it — will stand fit to put it out of its misery.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.