The Magazine

Can the GOP Come Back?

Yes, it can.

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By JAY COST
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American politics is cruelly unforgiving. Political parties work assiduously to take control of the country's governing institutions. The task of governance, however, is an awful one: Eventually, the majority party is overwhelmed by our unruly system and is unceremoniously tossed from power. The party's initial triumph heralds its inevitable defeat. Republicans are learning this the hard way, and many are asking what the party should do now.

It is easy to overthink this question, as the answer is quite simple. The GOP must now be the loyal opposition, whose job it is to energetically, unapologetically pursue the majority, though never at the expense of the public good. That is how the GOP fulfills its continued responsibility to the country. The only way the people can hold the Democratic party accountable is if there is a robust opposition working tirelessly to become the people's first choice.

This means no whining, no complaining, no cursing the cruelty of American politics. There's too much work for the party to do.

As the GOP gets on with this process, here are five suggestions:

(1) Ignore the determinists. Both political parties have within their ranks oracles whose job is to use the last election to predict that their party will win all future ones. Now that the Democrats have finally triumphed, their oracles are patting themselves on the back and proclaiming that this Democratic majority will be permanent.

I have looked at my fair share of vote returns over the years--and I have never seen what the oracles see. Old victories don't imply future ones. The prophets always overlook a key factor: The parties respond. When a party in the majority is reduced to minority status--it retools, reinvents, and revives. It actively works to undermine whatever seemingly permanent voting coalition the other side has created.

For instance, Ronald Reagan stole rural southern whites from the Democrats to win in 1980 and 1984. Bill Clinton stole them back in 1992 and 1996, only to have George W. Bush steal them again in 2000 and 2004. That's what parties do--they scheme to pick off the marginal voters in the opposition's coalition. Given the fact that control of at least one chamber of Congress or the presidency has changed hands six times in the last nine election cycles, I'd say that both parties have been pretty successful at this. The smart bet is for continued competitiveness.

(2) Think beyond Bush. To listen to some Democrats, you'd think that George W. Bush has destroyed the Republican party, American conservatism, or both. Please. The fact is that the Republican party was around long before George W. Bush, and will be around long after him. Simply put, the GOP is bigger than Bush.

Consider the Republican platform of 1860. That document couched its demand for free soil in the language of individual liberty. It demanded frugal governance. It called for the protection of settlers against the government and the expansion of private property via the Homestead Act. It advocated high tariffs to advance American business, and government support for a transcontinental railroad to facilitate the development of the nation.

Obviously, specific policies have changed since then, but contemplate them from a broader perspective: individual liberty, opposition to wasteful spending, protection of private property, pro-business policies, and the development of infrastructure to enhance economic growth. This sounds a lot like 21st-century Republicanism, and it is helpful to remember that the party of today has a connection to the party of the past.

Republicanism is bigger than any one individual. The GOP has prospered for more than 150 years because the country has had use for its principles. The party will prosper in the future because the country will have use for them once again. This is despite the fact that the GOP has had its share of unpopular leaders. The same goes for the Democrats. The country has had continued use for the Democratic party despite the unpopularity of Presidents Wilson, Johnson, and Carter.

(3) Be creative. There is value to the conversation now happening among intellectuals about where the GOP should go from here. But I'd suggest Republicans discuss their future with greater confidence in the party's core principles. There is no need to redefine them, or indulge in an existential "crisis of conservatism." Instead, now is the time for Republicans to use their principles creatively--to generate new and compelling solutions to public problems.