The lesson of 2008 is that it’s not enough to sound like a conservative. Whoever wants the Republican nomination in 2012 is going to have to earn it by taking conservative actions, not just repeating conservative words.
For the next four years, presidential aspirants will have to prove their dedication to conservative principles by casting votes and signing vetoes, by taking political risks and helping fellow conservatives reorganize all across the nation.
The “moderate” wing of the Republican Party isn’t dead. Too many of them are still in Congress, among current and former governors and in the unelected Party leadership. Some can even be found among the conservative media. They will do their best to contain, confuse and prevent a conservative from gaining the nomination.
And they will do their best to becloud the forces that led to McCain’s defeat. Yes, the media and some pollsters contributed to McCain’s loss by promoting Obama and predicting his election by inflated margins. But pollsters and media bias were not the decisive factors in McCain’s loss. George Bush, John McCain and Barack Obama were.
The decisive factor is that the Republican Party drifted to the left, to big government, in irresolute prosecution of the war, and into the biggest economic crisis in living memory. The truth that Democrats caused the financial mess — protecting Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, forcing banks to issue loans to unqualified borrowers by passing the Community Reinvestment Act — was overshadowed because the Bush Administration didn’t foresee or prevent the crash.
American voters lost confidence in George Bush. John McCain was the wrong choice to regain that trust because he is not an ideological conservative and chose to run a moderate campaign divorced from the issues in the front of voters’ minds. What else could explain the exit polls showing minority Catholics voting in tremendous numbers for pro-abortion Barack Obama?
The Republican Party will recover, but its only path back to the presidency and majorities in Congress is to return to conservative principles and — as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Mi) said on election night — to again become the party of big ideas.
Since 2006, Americans have suffered like Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega did in December 1989. Noriega, fleeing US forces, holed up in the Papal Nuncio’s residence where he was besieged — night and day — with blasts of loud rock music. Sound creates physical pressure that can be felt not just in the ear but in the mind. With the 2008 campaign finally over, Americans were just beginning to realize the relief from the relentless blast of campaign news only to discover that the first showcase for potential 2012 nominees is already upon us. The Republican Governors’ Association meeting this week in Miami will attract a whole gaggle of them.
Most will abide by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s advice, reported in The Politico. Barbour said, “One of the worst things that can happen to the Republican Party in our effort to rebuild is for a bunch of people to start running for president. Anybody harboring that ambition needs to squelch it until after 2010 … Anybody out there running for president is undercutting what’s important. You do this against your own interest.”
But the game is afoot, and the subjects of speculation can’t do more than deny they’re running. The political press can neither leave them alone nor resist reporting on their every move. The media have restarted the horse race, even if only with a few exhausted horses.
Conservatives have to guide that competition by setting criteria for candidates and goals they must achieve. We have to demand that the Republican candidate in 2012 earn our trust and support.
No potential conservative candidate should be written off or anointed too soon. Many of those who ran in the presidential primaries this year will try again as, probably, will Sarah Palin. Others in congress, among state governors and some who don’t hold office now covet that chance. But to covet something is not to deserve it. To restore the Republican Party, an aspirant will have to work tirelessly to reject compromise with liberalism and strengthen conservatives’ hand.
Those who are elected officials — in Congress and among the governors, state legislators and mayors — have it the easiest. Members of Congress can vote for the rare conservative proposition that may see the light of day, and must vote against the liberal agenda as well as the compromises offered by the moderate Republicans. And they can do more, as the House Republican Study Committee did in August when — despite the recess, even after Speaker Pelosi shut off the television cameras — they stayed in town to rebel against the offshore drilling ban.
Many Republican pecksniffs derided their protest as a stunt. But it worked: the offshore drilling ban expired because Pelosi and Reid knew they couldn’t get an extension passed. We need more conservative stunts like that.
Governors can also take political risks and stand for conservative principles. They have the power to veto legislation, and — even when their vetoes are overridden — can stand for conservative principles.
For all elected officials, this course presents political risk. But risking and suffering defeat and being willing to take the consequences is something we must demand of our congressmen, senators and governors. Barack Obama’s agenda, and the Pelosi-Reid congress will provide a lot of opportunities for them to prove their worth.
For those who aren’t in office, it’s more difficult but not impossible. Many, such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich, are the keepers of the conservative flame. When Gingrich wrote his “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less” petition, he helped the House “Drill Now” rebels organize a tidal wave of conservative support. There’s a huge lesson in Gingrich’s petition.
Any conservative who wants to be nominated in 2012 must help conservatives all across the nation organize, raise money for other conservative candidates and rebuild the Republican Party on conservative principles. They should be forming and leading coalitions of conservatives, running political action committees nationally and in every state to elect conservatives to state and local office.
And they should be helping find and recruit conservatives to run in 2010.
We often ask, “What would Reagan do?” That’s what Reagan did. It’s a model every presidential aspirant should follow.