The party change by Arlen Specter highlights a problem the Republican Party has had for a long time. There are too many in the Party who disavow the basic tenets and principles that should distinguish Republicans from Democrats. The so-called "big tent" often cited as Ronald Reagan's vision of the Republican Party is specious; Reagan never envisioned being a part of a Party that deviated from basic conservative ideology of smaller, less intrusive, fiscally responsible government.
The Constitution embodies conservative ideals of limited government and maximum individual rights. The American people are fundamentally conservative; they support living under the rules of government spelled out in our country's founding document and eschew diminishing the freedoms of the Bill of Rights while enlarging the role of government beyond what is spelled out clearly in the Constitution. Whenever the Republican Party emphasizes its core conservative principles it wins elections in all but areas populated by underachievers who rely on the government dole; it loses when Republicans present a "Democrat light" version of policies - why vote for Republicans when you can have the real thing by voting for Democrats?
"We strayed from our principles of limited government, individual responsibility and economic freedom. We have to adhere to those principles to rebuild the Party. Those are the brand of the Republican Party, and people feel that we betrayed the brand." said Chris Chocola, a former Indiana Congressman who is head of the Club for Growth, a group that has financed primary challenges against Republicans it considers insufficiently conservative. [Incidentally, Specter's rival for the Republican Pennsylvania Senate seat, Patrick Toomey, is a product of Club for Growth.]
But some Republican leaders in Washington still believe that Republicans would be permanently marginalized unless they showed flexibility on social issues as well as economic ones.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the head of the National Republican Senatorial committee, said he would seek to recruit candidates who he thought could win in Democratic or swing states, even if it meant supporting candidates who might disagree with his own conservative views. Cornyn said he was taking a page from New York Senator Charles Schumer's book who led his party to big gains by embracing candidates who, for example, opposed abortion rights or gun control.
"If you think about it, Schumer has been very good at this; I complimented him this morning in the gym," Cornyn said, adding, "Some conservatives would rather lose than be seen as compromising on what they regard as inviolable principles."
Senator Lindsay Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said: "We are not losing blue states and shrinking as a party because we are not conservative enough. If we pursue a party that has no place for someone who agrees with me 70 percent of the time, that is based on an ideological purity test rather than a coalition test, then we are going to keep losing."
I believe Cornyn and Graham are wrong; in fact, they represent what is wrong with the Republican Party. One only has to look at their records to see how they often disagree with Party principles. Graham says it is okay for him to be a 70% conservative but that is not true. Remember what happened to John McCain who is also less conservative than most Republicans want in the last election. McCain and Graham campaigned together and presented a "Democrat light" choice and McCain lost to the "real thing."
Democrats now enjoy dominance but that could be just transitory. I believe Democrats could suffer a backlash if economic policies pushed by Barack Obama fail and the country remains in a recession with high unemployment.
New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg said "These policies that he (Obama) is pursuing expanding the size of the government are going to be policies which the country will find hard to accept when they look at the levels of debt and the levels of spending that they require." Gregg added that the Republican Party should do more to draw economic contrasts with the Democrats. Other Republicans said Mr. Specter's departure was in effect a purification rite for the party that would make it better able to make its case to the public.
Senator Jim Demint of South Carolina said ideological purity was the road to success. He said "The best way to get to 60 (senators) is to have a core group of Republicans who really do what they say and stand for their principles."
Patrick Toomey, a former head of the Club for Growth whose primary challenge to Arlen Specter caused Specter to change parties to avoid a probable defeat in the republican primary said Republicans should be open to a "wide range of opinions on a wide range of issues but I think fundamental common ground that the vast majority of Republicans share is the belief in limited government, freedom and personal responsibility."
Senator Graham, the 70% Republican, naturally disagrees with Gregg, Demint and Toomey and scoffs at the notion that the party was suffering because it was not conservative enough. Graham said "Do you really believe that we lost 18-to-34-year-olds by 19 percent, or we lost Hispanic voters, because we are not conservative enough?" - "No" he said, "this is a ridiculous line of thought. The truth (according to Graham) is we lost young people because our Republican brand is tainted."
In my opinion the problem is not what Graham argues; it is that Republicans send a mixed message. Some Republicans like Graham and McCain tell people the Democrat ideas are not so bad, they just need to be tweaked a bit. We need to tell the real story of what Republicans stand for - individual freedom, individual responsibility, conservative social ideals, smaller government, lower taxes, free enterprise - not socialism, and the opportunity for everyone to succeed without government interference. Young people and Hispanics who Graham says will be lost to the Republican Party will support Republican candidates that stand for something - not like Graham and McCain.