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Friday, November 21, 2008

Ramesh Ponnuru in Time Magazine

In order to recover from the heavy losses in the elections and to regain some momentum, Republicans should realize that they were rejected as a whole. They did not loss mainly because one or other of their factions did it wrong, rather because they were perceived outdated at large. While remaining Conservatives, they need to understand the new world we all live in.

Here is an article by Ramesh Ponnuru for the Time Magazine (Mr. Ponnuru is a political analyst who ranges within the so-called Republican Reformers. He is a senior editor for National Review):

Rebooting the Right

Republicans are feuding in the wake of the November election. But they are not descending into civil war. That would be too tidy. What is unfolding instead is an overlapping series of Republican civil wars, each with its own theme.

The war that will get the most attention will center on social conservatives. Some Republicans believe that their reputation for intolerance is costing the party the votes of the next generation of Americans. But that argument got harder to make when California, one of the most liberal states in the country, passed a ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage. The party is unlikely to change its positions on social issues, but it will see a lot of back and forth on how much emphasis to give them.

Next in the dock will be the neoconservatives. Republicans were doing fine, critics will say, until the neocons pushed the country into the Iraq war. The neocons will defend themselves by noting that while they had plenty of company in supporting the war, they are not responsible for its botched execution and that Iraq ended up not being a major issue this fall.

Not long after, expect a range war over legal and illegal immigration. Supporters of looser rules will say the party's anti-immigrant tone has alienated Hispanics and given part of the Mountain West to the Democrats, with Texas to follow. Opponents will point out that John McCain co-sponsored an amnesty bill and Hispanics still shunned him.

The party's small-government purists, meanwhile, will insist that voters punished Republicans for going on a spending spree and that what the party most needs to do is re-establish an image of tightfistedness. The problem with this theory is while spending restraint is popular in general, so is nearly every specific spending program.

Other clashes will turn on personality and style. Conservatives will say McCain's moderate record cost him votes. Moderates will say he ran too far to the right--and erred by picking Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin has vocal defenders who think that she helped the ticket and should run for President herself in 2012. In Congress, some Republicans will want to cooperate with President-elect Barack Obama, heeding the voters' desire for bipartisanship. Others will seek to draw a clear contrast between their ideas and his.

My guess is that the winning side in these Republican debates will be tough on illegal immigration, federal spending and Obama. But all these arguments will also largely miss the point. When a party suffers the kind of beating the Republicans have taken in the past two elections, the public has not rejected one of its factions. It has rejected the party as a whole. Voters have turned on pro-choice as well as pro-life Republicans, on Senators who favored amnesty and ones who fought it. Evidently voters did not believe that Republicans of any stripe offered solutions to the challenges America faces now.

Daniel Finkelstein, a British Conservative, recently wrote that his party went through a similar period of internal strife after Tony Blair kicked it out of office in 1997. More painful than all the mutual recriminations, he wrote, was the slow realization that nobody outside a small circle cared about any of these arguments. More than a decade later, Conservatives are still out of power in Britain.

Republicans are counting on the natural tides of politics to lift their numbers in Congress in 2010. The Democrats may overreach, or their supporters may get complacent. But to get back in the driver's seat, to become relevant again, Republicans will have to devise an agenda that speaks to a country where more people feel the bite of payroll taxes than income taxes, where health-care costs eat up raises even in good times, where the length of the daily commute is a bigger irritant than are earmarks and where whites are a declining proportion of the electorate.

At the GOP governors' meeting this month, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota argued that Republicans need to stay conservative but also modernize. A revitalized conservatism would push for tax reform with an eye on middle-class families, not hedge-fund operators. It would seek solutions to global warming rather than deny that it exists. It would place a higher priority on making health care affordable than on slashing pork programs. It would promote the assimilation of Hispanics rather than regard them as a menace or a source of cheap labor.

The refurbishing of conservatism is unlikely to take place in the next three years. That will probably take a presidential candidate who seeks to lead a reformed party in 2012--and a party that is desperate enough to permit it.

Zoon Politikon)


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