What does the GOP want to be?

Jennifer Rubin / The Washington Post /

The Republican Party is at an inflection point. Two philosophies are pitted against each other, each represented by a segment of the right. The two elements can roughly be described as the group in favor of louder, starker articulation of positions even if most Americans don’t favor them and the group dedicated to devising a reform agenda that is true to historic conservative principles but aimed at gathering electoral majorities.

The first group insists the GOP’s problem is insufficient clarity and purity. It was telling that one of the advocates of this view is retiring Sen. Jim DeMint, S.C., who reportedly confessed to the National Journal that “he is leaving the Senate because he is tired of always saying no to the insufficiently conservative proposals of his GOP colleagues.” In other words, most every elected official is a sellout and the true majority sits waiting for someone to the right of elected officials to seize the day.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that deporting illegal immigrants, condemning gay marriage and refusing any increase in revenue are winning positions. The theory depends on the belief (not unlike Marxism) that the country and the GOP are suffering from a false consciousness. This group rejects the tradition of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk and others who counseled for prudence and gradualism. For this group, Ronald Reagan must also be considered as a betrayer of the movement for raising taxes, not ridding the country of Social Security (and the rest of the New Deal) and passing an immigration reform bill.

This strain on the right is effective at fundraising, marketing and gaining attention primarily by aping the caricature of the right wing that the mainstream media love to gobble up and by perpetuating an atmosphere of grievance and victimization at the hands of the establishment. No one of this ilk has come close to winning the presidency. In the past two Senate election cycles, a number of candidates backed by this group went down in flames.

The second group insists that the first is, well, nuts. For the second group, the heart of conservatism rests with the expansion of liberty, the creation of opportunity and the respect for the habits, customs and civil institutions of the citizenry. It is interested in winning elections, creating governing majorities and moving the ball in the direction of its values. It embraces Reagan as an exemplar of conservative values and a successful practitioner of political compromise. It does not accept as a fait accompli that nonwhite Americans will never vote for Republicans or that the country has become so morally flabby as to be incapable of self-governance.

The latter group is not necessarily (or even especially) moderate. In its ranks are those who want to shrink the size of government, roll back regulations, protect religious institutions, maintain border security, protect the unborn, maintain a robust national defense and keep taxes as low as possible. But in seeking those goals it is aware of the sentiments of the country and dedicated to the notion that the system of checks and balances by its very nature (regardless of electoral success) demands some wheeling and dealing and patience.

It is no secret that the first group has loud voices, big megaphones and many conservative entities at its disposal or that the second has often put forth ineffective candidates and failed to articulate the principles behind necessary compromises. The challenge for those elected officials, candidates and voters who want to win elections and enact a conservative government is how to demonstrate the same intensity, political muscle and organizational strength of its intraparty rivals. If it can’t, the GOP will not win another presidential election or win back the Senate in the near future. But it sure will raise a lot of money and get lots of viewers, listeners and readers.