Out of the Wilderness and Back into the Big Tent

The GOP Should Loosen Its Ideological Straightjacket If It Wants to Make a Comeback

For the GOP, it really wasn’t that bad of an election, considering the circumstances. Amid corruption, scandal, and mismanagement of affairs both at home and abroad, Republicans still managed to pull in 45.7% of the popular vote. That they did so is a testament to the enduring conservatism of America’s electoral landscape.

Still, by historical comparison, the 2008 election was a monumental blow to the Republican Party. For the first time in more than three decades, a Democratic presidential candidate won more than half of the vote (52.9%). 59% of the House and Senate are Democrats – providing a nearly unassailable majority. The recent troubles of Blagojevich and Richardson notwithstanding, Democrats lead in governorships 28-22. For at least two years, Republicans will be unable to mount much beyond a token opposition to the Democratic agenda.

What is the path back to power for the GOP? Many conservative pundits have advocated a return to conservative roots, arguing that, if anything, the party should move to the right to solve its electability issue. This is truly an odd position to take, made even odder by the seeming consensus that is developing around it. There is, admittedly, a kernel of truth to the claim; a focused effort to re-introduce conservative principles might improve the image of the GOP and strengthen the turnout of core Republican constituencies (which fell by about one and a half points since 2004).

Simple mathematics however, is enough to prove that a shift to the right will not overcome the nine-and-a-half million vote gap that separated McCain and Obama. Even if the Republican base had turned out at its historic levels in 2008, McCain still would have lost by a sizeable margin. Given that any future candidate capable of activating the base is also likely to turn away moderates, it should be clear that the national future of the GOP is not in retrenchment, but expansion.

More concerning than the national viability of the party (which technically doesn’t need to be fixed until 2012) is the growing regionalism of the GOP. While Democrats have made inroads into the conservative areas of the country, Republicans have done little to contest liberal strongholds. What remains on the electoral map is a red rump in the Deep South and Mountain West, encroached upon by an ever growing sea of blue.

In the past, there was a liberal wing of the Republican Party that could contest the blue states. Rockefeller Republicans challenged and won elections in the Northeast and Pacific Coast. Today, Democrats in these regions are re-elected without meaningful opposition, no matter how far to the left they might be of their constituents.

Republicans need to take a page from the Democrats’ playbook and begin running candidates in blue states that don’t cling to the party line, but instead offer a realistic challenge to the liberal incumbents. Four states with significant numbers of conservatives— Arkansas, Nebraska, Nevada, and Pennsylvania— send pro-life Democrats to the U.S. Senate. Across the south, gun-toting, flag-waving, pickup-truck-driving Democrats have been challenging Republicans and gaining ground.

Just this year, Democrat Walt Minnick, in one of the most conservative districts in the United States (McCain carried it by more than 60%), won a House seat by opposing the bailout and calling for spending cuts and fiscal responsibility. By contrast, John Kerry didn’t even need to learn his opponent’s name to get re-elected in 2008. The lesson is clear: that which does not bend, breaks. Better to field a compromise candidate and win than demand ideological purity and become irrelevant.

Maine should be an instructive example for Republicans. Since 1996, even as the state voted Democratic in four straight presidential elections, both Senate seats have remained comfortably in Republican hands. How? Both senators are pro-choice and sensitive to the demands of their centrist constituents. Despite being derided as Republicans-In-Name-Only, Senators Snowe and Collins have supported large parts of Republican foreign and economic policies, far more than conservatives would have gotten had the seats been in Democrat hands.

The GOP should return to its roots… but not its conservative roots — its Rockefeller roots. It’s time to pitch the stakes of a big tent party. Outside of the South (where the traditional formula is still a big winner), the GOP needs pro-choice Republicans, environmentalist Republicans, populist Republicans, peace Republicans, progressive Republicans… any flavor of Republican that can offer an electable alternative to the left.

The Rovian dreams of “permanent majority” are over. The GOP can no longer demand ideological orthodoxy from its candidates and expect to stay the governing party. Party fundraising dollars need to be sent to the candidates who can win, not the candidates who best recite the platform. In 2010 it’s time to take off the straightjacket and take the country back.