Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich came to Washington more than two decades ago with a vision for how to make the Republican Party the permanent majority. They stressed recruiting candidates for Congress who would lower taxes, reduce government regulations and practice good ethics. The Gipper and Gingrich did not see the fruition of their vision until the 1994 Republican Revolution, but it was well worth the wait. On Tuesday night, the revolution came to an end.
President Bush changed the governing philosophy of the Republican Party from small government Reaganism to big-government “compassionate conservatism.” In concert with disgraced Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Bush sought to expand the federal government’s reach in order to solve America’s problems. They promoted the growth of the K Street lobbying sector and became beholden to special interests. Appropriately enough, the corruption caused by Republican participation in lobbyist driven scandals was one of the top reasons why voters kicked the Republicans out of Congress.
The facts do not lie – Bush is the biggest spender since President Johnson, local school districts have lost most of their autonomy due to No Child Left Behind, the U.S. military is stretched dangerously thin and our ability to convince allies of the threat posed by worldwide terrorism is weakened by our tenuous relationships with foreign governments. These realities do not sit well with the Reagan wing of the Republican Party.
Ronald Reagan used to explain his defection from the Democratic Party by saying, “I didn’t leave the party – it left me.” If the Republicans do not reclaim their Reaganian principles, a mass exodus of libertarian Republicans will occur.
Looking at the regions where Republicans lost power Tuesday night – Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona – it’s evident Regan’s former stronghold has reverted back to the Democratic Party. Most of the Democrats elected from these states do not fit the profile of the current liberal Democratic leadership – the incoming freshmen are largely pro-gun, pro-life and anti-tax. This reality shows that the best way to gain power in Washington is to tow a moderately conservative line. Republicans used to know this.
I commend the Democratic leadership – particularly Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) – for their successes on Tuesday night. Emanuel and Schumer looked at the election map some time ago and hypothesized Democrats could not retake the Congress if they ran garden-variety liberals in red states. They also knew that a Democratic “Contract with America” would shift attention away from an unpopular president and an unpopular war, so they avoided a debate over ideas. In the end, their strategy of recruiting moderate Democrats and focusing on Republican incompetence worked. If Democrats in Congress are smart, they will elevate both men to leadership positions.
On the other side of the aisle, it is time for Republicans to go back to the drawing board and think about how they will emerge from this ass-whooping. One idea is to dismiss the current leadership and bring in young, conservative blood. Representatives Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and John Shadegg (R–Ariz.) are two rising stars in the Republican House caucus who challenged the Bush party establishment in 2005 on pork-barrel spending and ethical lapses.
Political movements start when leaders adhere to their principles in the face of adversity, and if there is a way for the Reagan wing of the Republican Party to rebuke the big-government conservatism of the Bush presidency, Pence and Shadegg are the men to lead the charge. The problem with these two men is only political junkies know who they are. However, history tells us that name recognition is a moot point if the political philosophy sells. After all, who had heard of Newt Gingrich prior to the 1990s?
If the Republican Party wishes to retain the presidency and win back Congress in 2008, it will have to find someone to lead a movement. Frankly, when I look across the party I do not see anyone capable of such a feat. The conservative establishment favorite – Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) – was humiliated Tuesday night. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will have some major ass-kissing to do in the South if he is to win the nomination. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is the media darling – which is a kiss of death in the Republican Party. As for Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), two words :Terry Schiavo.
Night has fallen on the Bush presidency and the dream of a permanent Republican majority. It is time for the party elders to pull an all-nighter and reconsider some of their policy decisions of the last six years. Otherwise, the scariest alarm will sound in 2008 – President Hillary Rodham Clinton.
CORRECTION: I erred in my column on Nov. 2 when I called Maryland a commonwealth – it is a state. I also erred when I wrote that if elected, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele would be the first black Republican senator since Reconstruction ended. Edward Brooke was a black Republican elected from Massachussetts in 1964.
John Stiglich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.