Why a Republican War of Ideas Is a Good Thing

Why a Republican War of Ideas Is a Good Thing

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Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog 

In 1994, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, the GOP presented a list of reforms called the Contract with America. A signed pledge committing the party to a series of specific actions, the contract was the leading wedge of an effort to bring the party to power in Congress for the first time in 40 years.

It was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its creators, bringing the GOP to national parity with the Democrats for the first time in the lives of most of the Republicans on the ballot that year.

Today, the GOP is more intellectually fractured, with old guard Republicans, Gingrich-era limited government conservatives, Tea Party activists, libertarians aligned with Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and others engaged in a competition to see which ideas will form the basis for what increasingly looks like a new Republican congressional majority. 

For some, the competition on the field of ideas is causing considerable heartburn. For others, like Michigan GOP Rep. Thad McCotter, a member of the House Republican leadership, this competition is an indication that the center-right coalition is healthy, vibrant and readying itself for the responsibility and challenges of governing the nation once again.

An unconventional conservative, McCotter is both classically educated--he considers himself a devotee of legendary conservative scholar Russell Kirk--and plays lead guitar in a band called "The Second Amendments," which earned him the nickname "That rock and roll dude" from former President George W. Bush. These traits, seemingly in contradiction, actually mix well together in ways that produce ideas that are as compelling as they are culturally relevant.

The idea that the party needs to coalesce completely around a single set of specific policy proposals, McCotter says, "is antithetical to conservativism." He has developed his own series of ideas, which he markets in a pamphlet called "We the People, Wide Awake" but, he admits, he is one voice among many.

"Politics is the art of the possible," McCotter says, repeating a maxim that, while not original to him, is perhaps the kind of realization that conservative activists of all stripes must come to accept as they come together in the kind of informal coalition necessary to reproduce the election victories of 1984 and 1994, when the GOP demonstrated it could win elections at all levels of government and in all parts of the country.

McCotter wants to have lots of ideas on the table. "The danger of one manifesto," he told me, "is that the movement is organic. Different people will be attracted to different things." To him, conservatives now have a much wider array of microphones with which they can communicate directly with the American electorate and, he argues, they should take full advantage of them. He himself uses social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to get his message out. He even has his own channel on You Tube, where his recent speech to CPAC already has more than 2,000 hits--which is not bad for a policy-oriented speech from a Michigan congressman who, while not quite obscure, also isn't a regular on the Sunday morning chat shows.

Atop the list of themes that define what differentiates conservatives and Republicans from liberals and Democrats, McCotter said in his CPAC speech, is the idea that "America's ultimate strength and salvation remains her free people," McCotter told CPAC. "We need to remember this now and affirm it more than ever because we stand in a crucible of liberty where we must define liberty for generations to come."

"We are experiencing what the left did under the last Republican majority," McCotter told CPAC. "The left believed under President Bush, a Republican Senate and a Republican House, that all their ideological designs for America would be thwarted. They were very anxious, they were very angry and they engaged in direct political action. Because of our own missteps we lost those majorities."

The pathway back to majority, he argues, is to build a broad coalition, organized around core themes. "If we don't know where we've been, if we don't know where we are, if we don't know where we're going, any road will take us there," he says. But that doesn't mean that the Republican Party needs to bring all the various elements of the anti-big government coalition together under one banner. "I don't know how you could corral that kind of energy," he says specifically of the Tea Party activists who, today, command so much attention, "or that you'd even want to try." 

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