After any election, leaders and members of the losing party should ask themselves two questions. “How can we win next time?” And, “Why should we win next time?” Answers to the former question guide politics; answers to the latter guide statesmanship.
The GWOT (Global War on Terror) was George W. Bush’s answer to “How can we win?” Anger is a universal human instinct. Recall the last time an oncoming car splashed you, or you were cheated in a business or personal relationship. The political exploitation of instinctive anger — the kind that rushes forth in times of stress — explains how much human conflict arises. That kind of anger creates everything from high school hallway fights to Africa’s eternal ethnic bloodshed to turning the only significant Islamic terrorist attack on U.S. soil (9/11) into nearly a decade of international conflict.
Whatever its other consequences, the GWOT did its political job, for George W. Bush anyway. Without posting notable accomplishments, other than self-appointed service as America’s “Warrior President,” Bush turned a contested 2000 election into a clear 2004 victory.
But there is another familiar answer to the politician’s question of “How can we win?” It is, simply, to do what the winners did. Some Democrats advocated that approach after their 1994 Congressional defeat. Some Republicans are advocating it now. You say a whole Democrat (Barack Obama) scares you? Try half-a-Democrat, compliments of the Republican Party. Doesn’t excite you? Me either.
Other Republican leaders are cutting redder meat and pouring stouter ale. I refer to Rush Limbaugh and Mike Huckabee.
Before skeptics laugh and turn the page, give me a chance to explain. I have not been a Rush Limbaugh fan for years. I can only tolerate so much carnival barking, anti-intellectualism and personal abuse. During the 2008 campaign, I dismissed Mike Huckabee as just one more “suit,” unwilling to challenge the war and homeland security policies of George W. Bush.
In recent weeks, both made statements that woke me up. They were not content to merely ask, “How can we win?” They probed further to ask, “Why should we win?” Neither proposed specific policies. Limbaugh criticized other Republicans for crafting policies to lure specific groups away from the Democrats. Stick to “principle and philosophy,” says Limbaugh.
Huckabee echoes this theme: “The crisis is not one over the precepts [of conservatism], but the practice. It’s not that we’ve failed in our doctrine, but our ‘doing.’”
There could not be sweeter music for my long-despairing Republican ears. No longer holding the levers of power, we Republicans must focus on work within our grasp. One such task is sharpening the message of the loyal opposition, an institution as vital to meaningful democracy as the governing party.
Since Franklin Roosevelt’s day, the Republican Party’s mission has been defending individuals, free markets and other voluntary institutions, as well as state and local governments, from an ever-growing federal government. The larger and more inclusive the federal government, the more vital becomes defense of the shrinking world beyond its grasp.
That should be the Republican Party’s North Star — the fixed position from which transient courses are charted to address changing political, economic and cultural conditions.
And commitment to longstanding principle, under different political circumstances, need not spell political suicide. Barack Obama won by 7 percent of the popular vote. American Presidential elections are typically decided in the 5 percent range. The famous landslides (Roosevelt in 1936, Johnson in 1964, Reagan in 1980) were all won by approximately 10 percent.
When I was a student and still a Democrat, my first political mentor told me, “Politics is not about changing minds. It’s about mobilizing friends.” And it is true that only half of legally qualified Americans vote, and fewer than 10 percent do anything else on behalf of their political views. Conservative victory means mobilizing enough conservative activists, from the inactive 90 percent of the population, to draw an additional 7 percent of conservative voters to the polls, from the non-voting 50 percent. My math says that is possible. Do your own.
In America, issues of political philosophy are settled through political struggle. Contending parties don’t convince each other, they replace each other. Reason-by-replacement is going on at all levels of the GOP and affiliated organizations, in all parts of the country, including Washington state and Spokane County. What the Republican Party will stand for and look like for a generation is being decided right now.
Political infighting is never pretty. Modern Germany’s founding Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck, said, “It is better not to see how sausage or laws are made.” And Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” Learn what they meant. See why I titled this column “Gang War.” Hope for a politically resurgent Republican Party requires that new (and formerly active) people get involved in the ongoing local skirmishes, as the GOP struggles to regain its philosophic bearings.
Stated more positively, take advantage of a unique opportunity to participate in meaningful change — the way it is really made.
Robert Stokes is a retired college professor and conservative activist in Spokane. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To comment on this story, e-mail us at email@example.com.