The Republican Path Back to Power: Lose Big Government Conservatism, Take a Stand

No more big government, whether conservative or liberal.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The Republican Party is currently engaged in a struggle to find its meaning.

After two successful national elections, the GOP suffered considerable defeat at the hands of Barack Obama and the Democrats. And that defeat brought with it considerable losses at the state and local level, what Republicans of the Gingrich era used to refer to as "the farm team."  The losses were sufficient enough to cause most of the party's deep thinkers (and yes, there are more than a few) to begin discussions of what must be done for the GOP to find its way back to power.

On Tuesday my Thomas Jefferson Street colleague and, full disclosure, former next door neighbor Mary Kate Cary wrote an essay in which she asserted that the political mainstream "has realized the social safety net is here to stay" while likening the advocates for limited government to the folks involved in Ruby Ridge.

It's a provocative point but, I think, something less than an accurate description of what, in fact, America wants.

First of all, advocates for limited government are not the same as those who believe that no government at all is necessary. During the Reagan era, advocates for limited government came together under what activist Grover G. Norquist calls the "Leave us alone" coalition.  In Norquist's thesis these people were all united by the idea that, whatever government was doing, it was doing too much. It was taxing too much. It was spending too much. It was borrowing too much. And it was engaged in social experimentations that were directly at odds with both the constitutional limits placed on the federal government by the Founding Fathers and the values of regular Americans.

That movement eventually produced the "Contract with America," itself a platform for limiting the power of the federal government and elected officials through a series of reforms, some of which were undertaken on the first day the Republicans were in power in the House for the first time in 40 years and others which were voted on within the first 100 days of Republican control of the House and Senate. And most of the tenets of the Contract became law in some fashion, save for term limits on members of Congress.

The Contract also paved the way for George W. Bush's election as president. Unfortunately, Bush's platform of "compassionate conservatism" was really a pseudonym for what others call "big government conservatism," which is sort of a "Nannystate" run according to conservative principles.

The way the Democrats began their march back into power was by eschewing their liberalism in those places across America where it made sense and by reaching an accommodation with the more moderate elements of their party--sometimes going so far as to recruit Republicans to run for Congress as Democrats in places like Kansas and Idaho. At the same time the Republicans embraced the power of the federal government to engage in an orgy of spending that, at least in part, led to the current crisis over Congressional earmarks.

The way back out of the wilderness for the GOP is to reject the ideas of "big government conservatism" in favor of a program that places limits on the ability of the federal government to control, through taxation, regulation and law, our lives and our private action--much as Reagan counseled for much of his public life. And one place to begin is to take the Obama administration head on over the idea that federal appointees and bureaucrats have the right to, in effect, fire the heads of corporations who accept, or who are forced to accept, federal financial assistance during the current economic crisis. Who the chief executive officer of General Motors should be is a matter for GM's board of directors and stockholders, not the president of the United States or the secretary of the Treasury. And to those who argue that the Republicans would be foolish to defend corporate leaders--that it would play into a harmful stereotype--I say that sometimes a line has to be drawn and this is as good a place as any. I have faith that the American people understand what is at stake and that they expect someone to stand up for what is right.

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