Rightward, Ho!

Mike Pence, an influential conservative from Indiana, talks about how the GOP lost in 2008 by not being conservative enough.

11.18.08 6:16 AM ET

Conservatives in what Sarah Palin might call "real America" are huge fans of Indiana Cong. Mike Pence. He combines a lawyer's facility with useful trivia and a talk radio show host's sense of the popular will—indeed, he has been both, and has emerged as a popular speaker, fundraiser and leader on the Hill. A former chair of the influential Republican Study Group, Pence is currently seeking the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 position in the Republican congressional cohort, and a role that would make him central to both organizing opposition to the Obama administration and in helping to rebuild a tattered party infrastructure.

Pence, however, emphasizes the "conserve" part in "conservatism" and doesn't see a need for the party to change so much as dig in. Last week, he told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday that "the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage" would continue to be part of the "time-honored" backbone of the party—a stance at odds with other voices on the right that see moderation on social issues integral to reaching out to the youth vote that McCain lost by an almost 2 to 1 margin.

“The Bush administration came to power with a pledge of big government republicanism which was at odds with the Republican revolution of 1980 and of 1994.”

Pence spoke to the Republican Governors Association on a panel about the future of the party. During the panel, some participants talked about whether the party should "modernize." Rep. Pence thinks not.

Q: What do you think happened to Republicans this cycle?

A: Well, I think Republicans lost because of a combination of a very well-run, national campaign by the Democratic Party and the Democratic nominee, and a profound loss of credibility on issues of fiscal discipline, limited government, and reform. And I think the way back is for us with OUR voters, is to renew our commitment to putting in to practice what we've always professed.

Q: Can being "lost in the wilderness" be a good thing?

A: Well, I think a study of political history in this country suggests that many of our greatest political movements have come out of the wilderness, but not all. The wilderness can be the wilderness for a while. But I really do believe that it can be a time when Republicans engage in an appropriate level of introspection. We think about what it is we stand for and the ways in which we failed to live up to those ideals and then as so many of these governors are doing—put it into practice in thoughtful ways, those ideals in both our opposition on Capitol Hill and at the state level where governing majorities exist.

Q: Is there something poisonous to conservative ideal about governing at the federal level? Is there something fundamentally corrupting about being Republican in power in Washington?

A: I subscribe strongly to the observation of Lord Acton that power corrupts. … That being said, I don't think the Republican party in six short years of the majority succumbed to the ethos of Washington so much as, I believe, the Bush administration came to power with a pledge of big government republicanism which was at odds with the Republican revolution of 1980 and of 1994. I don't begrudge the President that. He never made a secret in his reference to compassionate conservatism that he wasn't a strict, limited government conservative. But I think big government conservatism is a failed experiment.

Q: But with the election of Obama, Americans have clearly embraced the idea of big government. What successful political candidates of the modern era have promised smaller government?

A: I think the candidacies of George W. Bush certainly professed a commitment to fiscal disciple. I remember even Bill Clinton in his day. I remember the state of the union address, when he said, "The era of big government is over."

Q: But do you feel like he followed through on that promise?

A: With a Republican majority in congress, you saw President Clinton sign balanced budgets and bring about welfare reform. But I still believe in my heart, that most Americans know that the government that governs least governs best and that as government expends, freedom contracts. And I really believe with all of my heart today that the majority of Americans today, regardless of individual election results, or this national election results, are looking for leaders who will apply those principles to the governance of the nation.

Q: What do you think has happened to the Republican brand?

A: I've never liked the word "brand." It makes one feel like a box of cereal. I'm more interested in what's in the cereal box. And what's in the cereal box has to be a practiced commitment to defending the nation, defending the nation, defending the treasury and defending our values. If Republicans do that, concerns about the "brand" or marketing will take care of themselves.

Wonkette emerita, political junkie, self-hating journalist, and author of Dog Days. She has worked for Time, Mother Jones, Suck, and most recently, Radar. Follow her on Twitter.