First Republicans began to fracture over gay marriage. Then some of them started talking about revamping federal immigration laws. After the Newtown tragedy, a few even said that it might be time to consider changes in gun laws. Now scores of GOP lawmakers — 125, to be exact —have voted to raise tax rates on wealthy Americans.
The GOP has been fretting about changing demographics, bad messaging, lagging technology and an inferior ground game in the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss. But in reality, it’s time for a whole new level of soul-searching. What is the Republican Party if it does not embody never-surrender defiance on tax rates, illegal immigrants, gun rights, and traditional marriage?
Republicans had a moment resembling this one at the end of the Cold War. If they were not anti-Soviet, what were they? The answer, a legacy of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric if not his record, was they would be for less government and lower taxes. The social agenda expanded to include the “guns and gays” demands of the National Rifle Association and Christian conservatives.
But same-sex marriage now has many prominent GOP advocates, among them former party chairman Ken Mehlman and former solicitor general Ted Olson, and is supported by half of Republicans under age 29. It’s no wonder that at least one top GOP strategist has advised Republicans to move toward acceptance.
Pragmatism is also likely to be the driving force behind a softened stand on immigration reform, given the drubbing the GOP suffered among Hispanic and Asian voters last fall. And while Republicans will have a chance to flog the need for spending cuts in new fiscal fights in March, that won’t be a cure-all for their image, especially since President Obama and Democrats will get partial credit for any deal. The upshot, looking ahead: The party’s antitax brand is getting muddied and it is saddled with the perception that it is obstructionist and too conservative.
What’s the answer? One option would be to become the party of better government — not big or small government, but government that’s more efficient, more productive, and more focused on specific goals. The idea would be to position the party as an affirmative, dynamic, reformist, solutions-oriented force.
It wouldn’t be an overnight fix, and Obama and Democrats would surely argue that, Solyndra notwithstanding, they have been good stewards of government. But the party hasn’t made a thematic push on this front since the Clinton-Gore Reinventing Government initiative in 1993.
Commentary magazine has assembled a long list of suggestions about the future of conservatism from “53 leading American thinkers and writers.” Many of them advise conservatives to stand their ground on cultural and economic issues, and wait for Democrats to stumble or for Americans to see the light. But some recommend courses that fit squarely into the category of redefining and improving both the GOP and the federal government.
Former Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, now a Republican, argues for instance that conservatives “need to shake enough of our reflexive aversion to government to get serious about reforming government, from the archaic way it structures public schools to the inevitably unsustainable way it manages entitlements.”
Former George W. Bush aide Michael Gerson likewise calls for a revival of “the tradition of conservative reform” and adds: “Government has a proper role in preparing citizens for success in free markets, as well as in caring for the most vulnerable. It should be the conservative goal to make public structures efficient, modern, and truly compassionate—to make limited government more effective within its limits.”
One of the highest-profile Republicans in the Commentary mix, New York Times columnist David Brooks, makes an unabashed pitch for a “Rhino Wing” of the GOP (a variation on RINO, as in Republican-in-name-only) as a counterweight to what he calls its “Freedomist” wing. The Rhino wing “would reject the Freedomist equation that more government necessarily equals more dependency. It would reject the entire Big Government vs. Small Government frame. What matters is not the size of government but the nature of the citizenry. It would embrace any government program that stokes ambition, energy, and industriousness—the Hamiltonian virtues. It would reject any policy that stifles these things,” he writes.
There is at least one Republican from the front lines of governing who is dispensing advice. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — an exemplary conservative during five years in office — writes in Human Events that the GOP should lay a foundation for growth through “real education, immigration, tax and energy reform, opening foreign markets, and creating financial stability.”
Those likely would have been central themes of President Huntsman’s first State of the Union address. But we all know how that turned out.