There are fundamental decencies at the core of conservatism. It’s hard to tell in this campaign, as McCain and Palin have synthesized a bizarre ideological stew of McCarthyism, populism, Christian fundamentalism, and militarism that combines the cool judgment of Buck Turgidson with the intellectual rigor of Marge Gunderson. The daily defections of lifelong Republicans from the McCain camp show that the level of alarm and disgust at the present state of the movement is rising.
The traditional circular firing squad is assembling itself now (which is surprising; they usually wait until December or so). Conservatives are already talking about how long they’re going to have to spend in exile and on what basis they’ll reconstitute the Republican party and the conservative movement. They’ll assess whether the core strategy of greed, fear, and religious fundamentalism is still a sound electoral coalition, and what, if any, policies their movement stands for.
I have some suggestions.
First, the Republicans have considered themselves the party of fiscal responsibility for the past century. The actual economic benefits of their governance and their ability to manage spending has not matched their ideals, but they still have that brand. Once the current recession ends, it’s likely that a balanced budget and paying down the national debt will be popular positions. The Republican minority in Congress and Republican candidates in 2010 and 2012 could easily reconnect with their traditional voters through fiscal policy.
Second, the Republicans have always successfully branded the Democrats as the ones who use Big Government To Solve Problems. One of the problems with the McCain campaign is that he almost entirely abandoned the Reagan “small government” message, and Bush has done nothing but hideously expand both the size and the intrusiveness of the Federal government. A candidate with a specific plan for cutting or reshaping big programs (such as the GOP Congress and Clinton did with Welfare in the 90s) would get a lot of traction.
Republicans are jingoistic; they are nationalistic; they are passionate about traditional displays of love of country. In this election cycle that’s been used in an ugly fashion, as a cover for xenophobia and racism. But it can be used in a positive, Reaganesque way, by a candidate who cleanly separates the power of the country from the power of the government. Adopting some Libertarian attitudes about governmental power, such as taking a strong stand against NSA eavesdropping, restoring Habeas Corpus, and staying out of the medical and sex lives of citizens could give them a message of being pro-liberty that might work well after a decade of Democratic governance.
The greatest rise in crime in America in the past decade has not been in the inner cities; it’s been in rural areas, associated with poverty and drugs. The Republicans used to be the Law and Order party. Addressing the meth epidemic in rural areas for the purpose of getting dealers off the country roads and reducing crime would resonate as much with rural conservatives as the Democrats’ urban initiatives did with liberals in the 60s and 70s.
Finally, the GOP tapped a deep wellspring of populism with the Sarah Palin candidacy. Combined with the crippling fall of the financial titans and the avaricious wealth those same titans looted from their firms on their departure, the GOP could have been well positioned to defend the “little guy” against the fat cats. Unfortunately, McCain’s great personal wealth and the traditional big-donor funding base of the GOP made this message fundamentally insincere, with Palin’s $150,000 clothes budget being the most egregious example of the tone-deafness of the actual campaign. I expect the next GOP cycle will follow the Obama model and raise extremely large amounts of money from millions of small rural and church-based donors, and may actually be able to do some token forays at executive compensation.
I’m afraid that the Republicans are going to have to abandon some of the elements that elected Bush twice. Fear of Muslims and terrorists is just coming across as simple, stupid racism. The social-issues package of anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage, anti-evolution policies just looks bigoted and ignorant. And while a pro-business bias has always been a Republican hallmark, if the burgeoning business of 2010 is alternative energy, they’re going to have to drop the dispute about climate change and the environment, because that will be the engine of commerce of the next decade.
A Republican party and conservative movement based on efficient, inexpensive government; sound fiscal management; laws and regulations that maximize personal liberty; focus on catching criminals rather than terrorists; and supporting the needs of the middle class over those of the wealthy would be an all-new party with solid connections to its history, but a great deal of distance from what we have seen in 2000–2008.