When Mitt Romney lost, virtually everyone agreed that the Republican Party needed to change. Liberals said the GOP needed to become more moderate, while conservatives said the Republican Party had become too moderate. Both sides are right — and wrong.
Conservatives are right when they say a more moderate Republican Party is not the answer, but what many of them are wrong about is how they define conservatism. To turn on talk radio or watch Fox News is not to experience the philosophy of Bill Buckley, the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, or the free-market proposals of Jack Kemp. Aside from Paul Ryan’s entitlement reforms — one of the few tangibly conservative and positive differences between the Romney and Obama tickets — the populist Right has remained stuck on stupid, thanks to folks like Donald Trump, Dinesh D’Souza, and Orly Taitz. However, demagoguery and conspiracy theories do not represent ideas. They represent a lack of them. Throw in some clumsy language about “legitimate rape” and add to it Romney’s vision of a Dubya-style foreign policy, and Americans saw a “conservatism” they didn’t want. And who can blame them?
But they don’t necessarily want Barack Obama’s America either. We’ve seen this same thing before. Back in 2004, voters weren’t in love with George W. Bush. They just liked John Kerry less. In 2012, the Democrats should have lost thanks to the sour economy and high unemployment. That Romney couldn’t beat Obama says more far about the Republican Party than it does the Democrats.
The formula for a future GOP victory lies not with being Democrat-lite or neocon-heavy. It also does not lie in embracing socialism or abandoning social issues. The GOP can become a majority party again by offering new ideas rooted in old ones.
Since the 2010 elections, the term “constitutional conservative” has become a popular descriptor for Republicans who want to distinguish their policies from those of the Bush-era. But what does constitutional conservative mean?
When the Tea Party first started, it was primarily a movement against government spending and debt, and a majority of Americans were on board. A 2009 Rasmussen poll showed that 51 percent of Americans viewed the Tax Day protests that year favorably, while as late as January 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that 71 percent of Americans “say it’s important that Republicans should take [the Tea Party’s] positions into account.”
Those who now blame Republican losses in this election on the Tea Party are not blaming the philosophy of limited government. They are blaming a movement that has become associated with causes other than limited government, in particular social issues.
In this election, voters approved gay marriage in four states, while two states voted to legalize recreational marijuana usage. A true constitutional conservative understands that the regulation of marriage and drugs is not found in the Constitution, and as such, they are state matters. Conservatives have long used the language of the 10th Amendment to make the case against federal healthcare and gun regulation, which is why when it comes to gay marriage and drug legalization, they need to be consistent in their constitutional arguments even when they might disagree with the outcome.
In the case of abortion, constitutional conservatives should not abandon the pro-life fight. Instead, they should continue to advocate for the repeal of Roe v. Wade and for applying the same 10th Amendment principles to the issue of abortion. Individual states, not the federal government, should be deciding this issue.
By adopting a platform of constitutionally limited government, individual freedom, and personal responsibility, the Republican Party could find new answers to the old questions that currently impede the GOP’s Election Day success. Constitutional conservatism is a way forward. Or the Republican Party can keep recycling Bush-isms — promising more government, war, and less freedom. And if they continue to define conservatism as simply hating the Democrats, they will be buying a ticket to nowhere.