Rebuilding a Conservative Republican Majority

Like the Berliners of 1945-46 who picked through the rubble to separate still usable bricks for re-building from that which was destroyed beyond repair, the Republicans now start the same lamentable process of finding something of value in the rubble that was their majority. And just as the Berlin of today is physically both similar to and different from the Berlin that stood before it was flattened during WWII, so, too, the new Republican majority that someday will be rebuilt will be similar but not identical to the one that was constructed in the Reagan-Gingrich era.

For both edifices the cornerstone was and again will be conservative principles of governance and society. But even the substance of that cornerstone will be hotly fought over — to say nothing of how the rest of the building above the cornerstone will be constructed.

Will it exclude "grandiose nation building abroad," which George Will recently insisted was one of the non-conservative apostasies of the Bush administration? Will it also exclude a firm Mexican border policy and any deviance from free trade, as Michael Barone suggested last week? Will it exclude opposition to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, as many U.S. Chamber of Commerce leaders believe is necessary to keep the business-class conservatives on board with Republican conservatism?

It’s all very well for all of us conservatives to repeat — and believe — the mantra that we strayed from conservative principles and paid the price. But the inevitable stresses within the conservative Republican governing coalition that had held together for a quarter of a century (more or less) until last week’s election will be harder to put back together than they were to keep together. (The magic elixir of power to be shared is stronger than the appeal of laboring together in the wilderness.)

National governing parties are by definition coalitions. There is no faction in American politics equal to 51 percent of the vote. FDR successfully held in his great coalition southern segregationists and northern integrationists — to use the most spectacular example of successful coalition management. The challenge for conservatives is to rebuild a governing coalition for the next few decades. Let me offer just one example of how this coalition construction job will be marginally different from the one Newt Gingrich & Company had in the ’80s and ’90s.

Last week, Republicans lost several seats held by moderate and liberal Republicans in New England and the mid-Atlantic states — as well as some in the Rocky Mountains and Southwest. In the ’90s, the Rockies and Southwest were growing populations of reliable conservative votes, while the Northeastern coastal region’s liberalism was being awkwardly but ably held back by ensconced Republican moderate to liberal incumbents, such as Nancy Johnson. How do we propose to win back those Northeastern seats? Or if we are planning to abandon the Northeast, where do we plan to pick up replacement seats elsewhere? We may get back and pick up more seats in the Rockies and Southwest — but clearly because of immigration from California and Mexico into that region, those seats will be more competitive in the 2000s than they were in ’80s and ’90s.

How congressional Republicans shape and describe their conservatism may well determine whether those seats are retrievable or not in the next few election cycles.

I still believe in the wisdom of Ronald Reagan in 1975, when he said that we conservatives had to avoid pale pastels, and describe our principles and programs in bold colors. But one of Reagan’s many gifts was the ability to describe authentic conservative principles in a way that appealed to many moderates and even a few liberals. Back then only about 25 percent of the public was self-described conservatives (with liberals at 25-30 percent and moderates at approximately today’s 45 percent. Today (and for a couple of decades now), the breakdown is approximately: 20 percent liberal, 35 percent conservative, 45 percent moderate. So our job is easier than Reagan’s was — because Reagan bequeathed us about 10 percent more conservatives and about 10 percent less liberals than he found when he started his national leadership. But it is still formidable. And remember, functional public self-definitions of conservatism change over time. Back in 1964, Barry Goldwater and his supporters opposed any federal aid to education. Today, few even rock-ribbed conservatives oppose any federal college tuition aid, for example.

This is a very delicate moment for the conservative coalition. Over the next several months (and probably years), conservatives must do what we usually do very badly, restrain ourselves from adamantine proclamations of what is or is not beyond the pale of conservatism. And while we can almost all now agree to stop spending like drunken sailors and earmarking special benefits — having marred our record on this over the last six years, merely restating our commitment will not be nearly enough to regain the lost faithful.

Particularly for House Republicans, these and related questions will be of first priority as they re-organize both their leadership (I hope after Thanksgiving) and as they design their visions, strategies, projects and tactics for the next Congress.