The Magazine

Let 1,000 Republican Flowers Bloom

What the GOP needs is not a unified message but political entrepreneurs.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The ceremonies, unity, and patriotism of Inauguration week were nice. The bloviating, fawning, and gushing from celebrities and the media were a bit much. It's not surprising that we are beginning to hear expressions of frustration from the Republican grass roots, and exhortations to action: "Why can't the Republican congressional leadership get its act together? Where's the coherent message? What's the strategy? Why the disunity? Who's going to lead us out of the wilderness?"

To which the answers are: Calm down and be careful what you wish for.

Calm down because Obama has just become president and the ball is in his court. There are severe limits to what the GOP can do over the next couple of months. In fact, Republicans might be better off doing nothing at all. Since Election Day, the GOP has been nowhere to be seen and Obama's popularity has soared, but the Democrats' edge over the Republicans in the generic congressional ballot of the Rasmussen poll hasn't increased at all.

George W. Bush, the leader of the party--and, let's face it, of conservatives--for the last eight years, has only just left town. Fairly or unfairly (mostly unfairly), he ended up a very unpopular guy. It's going to take a while for Republicans to shake free of the Bush effect. And, more important, to shake free of the fact that for the last 14 years, and 26 of the last 28, there's been a Republican president in the White House and/or Republican control of Congress.

That's why one has to be careful about what one wishes for. Republicans, newly liberated, need to resist calls to shackle themselves to prematurely announced agendas and already anointed leaders. This is the time for a thousand Republicans to bloom. Congressmen used to looking to the White House for guidance or approval--or fearing disapprobation--should show some healthy ambition and unleash their inner policy entrepreneur. Backbenchers need to come forward with heterodox ideas. There should be vigorous debate. Disharmonious disarray is in the short term much less of a danger than a false and stultifying unity.

Everyone looks back nostalgically to 1993-94, the last time Republicans were out of power, but that example is a bit misleading. In 1992, Clinton had won only 43 percent of the vote, and the Republicans had gained congressional seats. The successful Reagan years remained fresh in voters' minds. The task was simply to reclaim and revivify the Reagan agenda. The task today is both harder and less well defined.

The situation is more like 1977. For one thing, given the unlikelihood of Republicans taking back Congress in 2010, it requires a four-year horizon rather than a two-year one. More important, it requires serious rethinking in fundamental areas. Consider how far the party moved from 1977 to 1980. It was a period of vigorous, even hectic, political, policy, and institutional entrepreneurship, among conservatives both old and new. Thanks to the controversial efforts of backbenchers like Jack Kemp and Bill Steiger, the party rejected green eyeshade budget-balancing and embraced pro-growth supply-side economic policies. Thanks to the emergence of the neoconservatives, Kissingerian détente gave way to Reaganite freedom-fighting. Religious conservatives moved en masse to join the ranks of the GOP. All of this in four years.

This happened through an unruly mix of debate--in magazines and op-ed pages as well as in Congress and the states--through a host of uncoordinated legislative initiatives, most of which went nowhere but some of which took off, and through uncoordinated, often ad hoc, reactions to the Carter administration and developments around the world.

If party leaders and ideological guides had succeeded in buttoning everything down, if there had been harmonious unity and a coordinated strategy and an agreed-upon message in early 1977, there would have been no Reagan Revolution. And if politicians--or for that matter pundits--had been deterred from changing their minds, worried over charges of inconsistency, there would have been less progress during those years. When you're out of power after having been in power for a long time and when there are new realities requiring fresh thinking, a foolish consistency really is the hobgoblin of little minds. Or at least politically unsuccessful ones.

So a little chaos, lots of debate, tons of political entrepreneurship--that's what we need.

--William Kristol