In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat in last fall’s election, and the defeat of a myriad of Republican Senate candidates (establishment and Tea Party alike) in Romney’s wake, Republicans are getting no shortage of free advice. The quantity of that advice, however, is more apparent than its quality.
Among other things, Republicans are being encouraged to embrace American citizenship for illegal immigrants, as if this would further the party’s principles — chief among them respect for the rule of law — or advance its electoral prospects. (As Matt Continetti, exaggerating only somewhat, writes, “Amnesty 12 million illegal immigrants and gain 12 million new Democrats while incentivizing additional illegal border crossings and watching parts of the GOP coalition self-immolate.”)
They’re being encouraged to subscribe to the notion that defense spending has been a core driver of our debt, as if defense spending hadn’t flatlined over the past 50 years while other federal spending has skyrocketed. (From 1962 to 2012 — so, even before the sequester —real per-capita defense spending dropped from $2,194 to $2,161, while other real per-capita federal spending rose about fourfold, from $2,284 to $9,098.) They’re being encouraged to deemphasize social issues, as if the social conservative third of the Republican coalition were expendable — and as if it were really possible to deemphasize those issues any more than Romney did. (As Chris Caldwell wrote immediately following the election, “Where two candidates argue over values, the public may prefer one to the other. But where only one candidate has values, he wins, whatever those values happen to be.”)
They’re even being encouraged to question whether, 32 years after President Reagan’s first inaugural address, the federal government is still “the problem” rather than “the solution.” This, despite the accumulation of more than $15 trillion in new federal debt in the interim; the government-fueled housing bubble; the passage of President Obama’s $787,000,000,000 “stimulus” in the aftermath of that bubble’s bursting; the subsequent passage of Dodd-Frank and its codification of “too big to fail”; and, most of all, the passage (and pending implementation) of Obamacare. Yes, the government remains — and is now more than ever — the problem.
What Republicans aren’t sufficiently being encouraged to do, however, is to position themselves as the party of liberty and to contrast that with the party of coercion — the Democrats. The GOP should position itself as the party of individual freedom versus the party of centralized power; of vibrant local communities versus enervating federal control; of honest work versus cronyism; of Main Street versus Wall Street; of everyday Americans versus the well-connected; of respect for the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (which includes the right to keep the fruits of one’s own labor) versus the opposing claims of abortion, centralized power, and income redistribution (and the liberal crown jewel that would advance all three — a federal government monopoly over health care).
In addition, a fair amount has been written about the need to make the moral case for conservatism. But to be particularly effective, that case must transcend strictly material concerns. After all, the core of the case for what we now call “conservatism” is the revolutionary idea that every human being has a God-given right to be free. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.”
That is emphatically not the position of the party of Obama. In his Second Inaugural Address, Obama said, “[P]reserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” In other words, liberty isn’t threatened by centralized power; it’s made possible by it. This essentially turns our founding philosophy on its head.
To be clear, being the party of liberty doesn’t mean being the party of libertarianism. Republicans should stand for liberty and the traditional mores that support it, and against the license and libertinism that undermine it. They should stand for a strong national defense and a policy of peace through strength. Moreover, they should espouse (as the Founders did) limited government, not small government. Given a choice between big and small government, the citizenry’s preference in the 21st century may not be clear. Make it a choice between limited government and unlimited government, however, and the verdict will be plain.
Nor does being the party of liberty and limited government mean that Republicans don’t have an essential, indispensable, role to play in reforming government. To cite just one (but perhaps the most important) example, one cannot realistically hope to repeal Obamacare — and, yes, Republicans should be as determined as ever to repeal it — without first offering a compelling replacement. At this stage in American history, the cause of liberty requires a keen understanding of federal policy and a willingness to advance creative solutions to combat the Democrats’ statist aims and to undo the damage they’ve done.
But when Republicans won’t speak the language of liberty, they handicap their efforts. Bill Kristol recently quoted the eulogy that Abraham Lincoln gave upon the death of Henry Clay. Recalling the themes of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln said of Clay,
“He loved his country partly because it was his own country, and mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity, and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity, and glory of human liberty, human right, and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen, partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that free men could be prosperous.”
The most striking thing about this passage is the way it prioritizes liberty even over prosperity: “He desired the prosperity of his countrymen…chiefly to show to the world that free men could be prosperous.” The contrast with the 2012 campaign is striking. Think of how many times Romney spoke of economic well-being versus how many times he said the word “liberty.” America’s political leaders used to make no secret of holding loftier ideals; they viewed being a free man or woman to be an even more important and richer condition than being a materially wealthy one.
In truth, however, liberty and prosperity go hand-in-glove. There’s no need to choose between them, and there’s no reason why the Republican party need give rhetorical emphasis to one over the other. It would be wise, in the spirit of Lincoln, to emphasize both.
The party of liberty versus the party of coercion — that’s a clear choice for the American people, and one that plainly favors the GOP.