What next for the Republican Party?

The Republican Party, to which I belong, received a solid—albeit not catastrophic—defeat in Tuesday’s elections.  The Washington Post‘s conservative columnist George F. Will has an excellent editorial putting GOP losses in perspective:

As this is being written, Republicans seem to have lost a total of 55 House and 11 Senate seats in the past two elections. These are the worst Republican results in consecutive elections since the Depression-era elections of 1930 and 1932 (153 and 22), which presaged exile from the presidency until 1953. If, as seems likely at this writing, in January congressional Republicans have 177 representatives and 44 senators, they will be weaker than at any time since after the 1976 elections, when they were outnumbered in the House 292 to 143 and the Senate 61 to 38.

Still, the Republican Party retains a remarkably strong pulse, considering that McCain’s often chaotic campaign earned 46 percent of the popular vote while tacking into terrible winds. Conservatives can take some solace from the fact that four years after Goldwater won just 38.5 percent of the popular vote, a Republican president was elected.

Does anyone really think the donkey is a better mascot than the elephant?  Seriously?

Does anyone really think the donkey is a better mascot than the elephant? Seriously?

However, Will hits on an important way in which 2008 was worse than 1964 for Republicans and conservatives (who are, even now, not necessarily the same thing).  While McCain’s loss was not as huge as Barry Goldwater’s 1964 loss—in which he won 16 fewer states and 122 fewer electoral votes than McCain seems to have won—the Republican Party has some problems.  “Tuesday’s trouncing was more dispiriting for conservatives. Goldwater’s loss was constructive; it invigorated his party by reorienting it ideologically. McCain’s loss was sterile, containing no seeds of intellectual rebirth.”  The Grand Old Party must immediately begin some very deliberate soul searching to figure out what sort of party it wants to be.

It appears that the three-legged stool of supporters that Ronald Reagan most perfectly united—social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and foreign policy hawks—can no longer be assumed for Republicans.  The issues that social conservatives care about, sometimes to the exclusion of other issues, appeal to a diminishing number of moderates and independents, though I say that with less certainty than I would have if California’s Proposition 8 had been defeated.  And voters rightly distrust Republicans right now; during the past eight years, the national debt has almost doubled and U.S. standing in the world has plummeted to lows not seen in decades.  Our party controlled the white house during that time and Congress for most of it, so what excuses do we have?

Slate has some interesting short essays by Republican and conservative thinkers about what the party needs to and can do in the next few years to shape itself back up.  Jim Manzi, a contributor to National Review, writes the following:

Most conservatives who propose a return to “Reagan conservatism” don’t understand either the motivations or structure of the Reagan economic revolution. The 1970s were a period of economic crisis for America as it emerged from global supremacy to a new world of real economic competition. The Reagan economic strategy for meeting this challenge was sound money plus deregulation, broadly defined. It succeeded, but it exacerbated a number of pre-existing trends that began or accelerated in the ’70s that tended to increase inequality.

International competition is now vastly more severe than it was 30 years ago. The economic rise of the Asian heartland is the fundamental geostrategic fact of the current era. In aggregate, America is rich and economically successful but increasingly unequal, with a stagnating middle class. If we give up the market-based reforms that allow us to prosper, we will lose by eventually allowing international competitors to defeat us. But if we let inequality grow unchecked, we will lose by eventually hollowing out the middle class and threatening social cohesion. This rock-and-a-hard-place problem, not some happy talk about the end of history, is what “globalization” means for the United States.

Seen in this light, the challenge in front of conservatives is clear: How do we continue to increase the market orientation of the American economy while helping more Americans to participate in it more equally?

Indeed.  It is not enough to simply create more wealth if it all goes to those who already have ridiculous amounts of it.  It’s about meeting society’s needs through, among other things, the creation of wealth.  If we can’t figure out how to accomplish this we’re in for a long time in the wilderness as a party.  We also need to rethink our relationship with the world.  China is not the Soviet Union.  Al Qaeda is not the Soviet Union.  The European Union is not what it was thirty years ago.  We can’t just apply Reagan’s policies to today’s world; those policies were designed for the world as it was then, not now.  But the principles are the same.  What do we need to do now to increase economic performance, while helping the environment?  What do we need to do now to promote freedom abroad and to counter international aggression?

We’re out of power right now, so we’ve got time to think about these issues.  How much time depends on us.

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