Political Purity vs. Big Tent Party Building is a False Choice

A political party can’t build a big tent without it being anchored to clear ideological principles.

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Former Indiana Rep. Chris Chocola is president of the Club for Growth, a limited-government, free-enterprise political advocacy group.

The political choice between ideological purity and "big tent" coalition building is inherently false. Success requires both. Just as businesses need a long-term vision and attention to minute detail and football teams need hulking linemen and fleet-footed receivers, political majorities need moderates and ideologues.

But any businessman or football coach can tell you that success comes from the inside out. The detail men can't make decisions without an understanding of the company's mission, and the receivers never get their hands on the ball if the linemen don't know their job. Similarly, a political party can't build a big tent without it being anchored to clear ideological principles.

This goes for Republicans and Democrats. It's easy to forget just watching cable TV, but the two parties do not exist solely to oppose each other. At their best, Republicans and Democrats represent and advocate for two very different worldviews. To succeed, a party must persuade voters to reject the other party's worldview and support its own. But this is only possible if the party actually has a worldview.

For Republicans, that worldview was summed up by Ronald Reagan more than 20 years ago. We should emphasize the things that unite us and make these the only "litmus test" of what constitutes a Republican: our belief in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty.

This litmus test wasn't a call to purity or extremism—­just the opposite. Reagan was endorsing the broadest and most inclusive definition of a Republican imaginable. If a Republican didn't believe in these basic things, why would he call himself a Republican anyway?

Democrats have a corresponding set of bedrock principles, too, like abortion rights and income redistribution. If Republicans suddenly advocated massive tax hikes on small businesses, or Democrats suddenly called for overturning Roe v. Wade, they would not be seen as inclusive, but unprincipled. If they can cave on that, what won't they cave on? As Reagan noted, there are other issues on which "we can disagree among ourselves as Republicans and tolerate the disagreement." Barack Obama could say the same of the Democrats.

Governing requires compromise, but elevating compromise itself to a principle is like building a house on sand.

Republican politicians in particular must insist on certain principles–especially economic freedom and limited government—because every institution in Washington is predisposed toward perpetual growth. Here's how it works. A problem arises. Liberals say we need an expensive new government program to solve it. Conservatives say no, we need to cut government to solve it. A fierce debate ensues, until a moderate group of lawmakers produces a bipartisan compromise that grows government, but not quite as much as the liberals want. The game is rigged against limited government and the free-market conservatives who fight for it. As Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina puts it, "I never saw a bipartisan bill that reduced the size of government."

Clear distinctions. The only way for economic conservatives to enact policies according to their broadest, most basic principles is to fight unflinchingly for them. Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008 because they didn't. On their watch, government grew faster than it had under President Clinton, ethics reforms were undermined by scandals, and proliferating earmarks corrupted the budget.

To win again, the GOP cannot merely present itself as a copy of the Democrats. Republicans must draw clear distinctions between the Democrats' principles and their own. That's what they have been doing for more than a year now, and that's why Republicans are more energized than they have been since 1994.

For the first time in years, the GOP is returning to its roots and giving voters a reason to vote Republican again. And it is relearning an old political lesson: Fight for your principles, and you get a majority, too; fight just for the majority, and you get neither.