This week, Colin Powell, once considered a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination, stated the obvious to a gathering of executives: “The Republican Party is in deep trouble.” He went on to note that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and his audience gasped. Later that day, Powell was burned at the stake.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. At press time, Powell was nowhere near an open flame. But a number of conservatives did lambaste Powell for stating a number of other obvious truths, among them that “Americans are looking for more government in their lives, not less” and “Americans do want to pay taxes for services.” In a Pew survey conducted shortly after the 2008 election, an impressive 38 percent of the electorate identified themselves as conservatives, far more than the 21 percent who called themselves liberals. Yet 51 percent of those self-described conservatives favored repealing some of the Bush tax cuts. And 24 percent of them wanted to repeal all of them. Not surprisingly, a larger share of liberals and moderates felt the same way. Note that the official GOP position has been that the Bush tax cuts should be made permanent. To put it plainly, the official Republican position—forcefully advanced by conservative media luminaries—reflects the views of just under half of the most conservative bloc of the country.
Slowly but surely, young voters, including many who now find themselves punch-drunk on Obama, will start having heretical daydreams about Bobby Jindal’s Kenneth-esque Louisiana drawl.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that the tax-hating conservatives are wrong. Maybe we should keep all of the Bush tax cuts, or replace the income tax with a Fair Tax or a flat tax or—my favorite—a primitive system of hunting and gathering. It does mean, as Powell suggests, that Republicans are out of step with a country that feels as though it deserves a handout. Again, there is no sense in which the desire for a handout is a noble sentiment. Perhaps Republicans should stick to their guns and go down fighting for what they believe in. There is something very admirable in that.
That’s the pickle conservatives are in. Do they compromise core principles to win elections, as Powell suggests, or do they stage a kamikaze quest never to compromise principles? Well, let us explore those options. The latter is a complete canard.
Republicans, particularly rock-ribbed Reaganites, have compromised themselves into a corner. They say they’re cutting taxes, but they never go after funding for Medicare and Medicaid and education. Instead, Republicans talk about trimming or at least restraining discretionary spending. That’s a good and worthwhile thing to do, but it’s not where the real money is. The real money is in making Medicare and Medicaid and education cheaper and more effective. But hard-core conservatives don’t talk about those issues because they’d rather pretend these mammoth, massively popular programs didn’t exist. President Bush gave serious domestic reform a shot, but, frankly, he failed to make many lasting changes.
But then here comes Colin Powell—after endorsing Barack Obama in last year’s election, which was not exactly a risky move by the time he got around to it—and he’s decided to lecture conservatives on their many faults. And guess what? With most of America delirious with Obamaphilia, conservatives are feeling thin-skinned and not much in the mood for compromise.
Pretty soon, though, I believe conservatives will have to stop wallowing in delusion and self-pity. The most promising Republican Senate candidates for 2010 are Mike Castle of Delaware, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Simmons of Connecticut, and, assuming he actually has the guts, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. All of them are moderates with a proven record of winning the votes of suburban independents and even Democrats. This doesn’t represent any grand reinvention strategy, but it’s the way change starts happening. If these four candidates actually win their races, they will become a powerful bloc that can start moving the GOP closer to the American mainstream. They will start pushing pet issues—like a family-friendly tax code, more nuclear power, support for telecommuters, better infrastructure, effective immigration reform, high-quality affordable health care—that will resonate with the voters Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008. Slowly but surely, young voters, including many who now find themselves punch-drunk on Obama, will start having heretical daydreams about Bobby Jindal’s Kenneth-esque Louisiana drawl. That’s when the right will be back in business. And there are excellent signs that this is already happening. Eric Cantor, Jeb Bush, and Mitt Romney are leading a shrewd effort to reconnect the party with "reg'lar folks" through a series of town halls.
Late last year, Michael Bierut of Pentagram, one of New York’s buzziest design firms, came up with a brilliant branding concept for the GOP. With white type against a red background, he offered a simple list of words: Renew. Reinvest. Refresh. Recommit. Restore. Rethink. Republican. I can’t say I’m an expert on branding—my “Reihan Means Jobs!” bibs never really took off—but this sounds right to me: It projects confidence and a desire to get back to first principles. The Great Recession is leading all Americans to rethink the way we’ve been running our economy and our lives for the past couple of decades. Republicans need to demonstrate that they have a smart, sane sense of where to go from here. And I think they will—I just hope it happens before Malia Obama’s third term.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.