Dick Cheney’s emergence as leader of the opposition delights two groups, one small and shrinking, the other large and growing. The small group is movement conservatives, who regard the former vice president as their grumbling tribune. The large group is the Democrats, who see in Cheney the scowling face of a minority party that intends to stay that way, of a base-only conservatism that can’t win.
The only people unhappy about Cheney’s pre-eminence, in fact, are members of that dwindling, persecuted, not-even-a-faction known as moderate Republicans. Colin Powell made an eloquent plea for this anachronistic viewpoint on Face the Nation last Sunday. “If we don’t reach out more, the party is going to be sitting on a very narrow base,” Powell said, going on to propose that after losing everything, the GOP undertake an after-action review, in which leaders frankly assess what the hell just happened.
This is mere common sense, but half a year after their catastrophe at the polls, Republicans remain more inclined toward self-immolation than self-examination. At its most recent meeting, the Republican National Committee spent its time discussing the most hilarious way to call Democrats “Socialists.” After Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter switched teams, bringing Democrats to the brink of a filibuster-proof majority, Jim DeMint of South Carolina said he’d rather have 30 principled Republicans in the Senate than 60 flexible ones. Wait, why not 25 really principled ones? Do I hear 15? There has been little open acknowledgement on the right of the depth of the problem, let alone any sign of the wholesale rethinking that the GOP needs to return to viability.
So let’s get the recriminations started for them. In the Reagan era, it was said that Democrats searched for heretics while Republicans looked for converts. These days, it’s the other way around. The 2008 campaign of John McCain, who came from the reasonable wing of the GOP, illustrates just how cowed even the party’s independent thinkers are by the fever-swamp crowd. McCain got shaken down at every activist tollbooth, culminating in the big one on the way into Minneapolis, where he was told he couldn’t choose Joe Lieberman as his running mate. By the time the movement got done with him, McCain had been stripped of his crossover appeal. Litmus tests on issues including taxes, abortion, guns, and immigration are compounding the party’s longer-term demographic difficulties. In a nutshell, white, middle-class, rural and suburban, church-going families who most reliably vote right are shrinking as a share of the population. Latinos, Asians, and young people who like Republicans less are voting more.
As daunting as the GOP’s challenge looks, it isn’t hopeless. Both parties have been pronounced dead too many times for anyone to schedule a funeral. One encouraging model for the Republicans is the way Democratic centrists moved from marginalization to pre-eminence in their party in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. After Reagan’s re-election in 1984, liberals began to recognize that the New Deal coalition was no longer delivering presidential elections. In 1985, the Democratic Leadership Council was founded as a counterweight to free-spending, interest-group liberalism. The New Democrats promoted fiscal and personal responsibility and market-based policies. They cultivated nonideological politicians who could still win in the South and the West. This approach led to something close to open warfare within the party and a presidential victory in 1992.
Another encouraging model for the right is the British Conservative Party, poised to return to power after 12 years in the wilderness. David Cameron, who took over as party leader in 2005, has focused on winning over moderates and modernizing his party’s fusty image (though a scandal involving conservative members of Parliament using official allowances for such expenses as moat-dredging isn’t helping). While hewing to the old values of free enterprise, family, and individual liberty, Cameron has accommodated Britain’s changing demographics and values by making the party pro-environment, gay-friendly, and sympathetic to immigrants. As with the Democrats, it took time and lost elections for the Tories to retool. But once they did, they re-emerged as a renewed competitive force.
In political terms, it’s easier to see what a viable Republican Party should ditch than what it should add. It’s past time for the GOP to abandon its Gingrich-era, pseudo-libertarian anti-government rhetoric and to accept the broad social consensus behind progressive taxation, retirement security, action to forestall climate change, and a government role in health care. It might want to quit defending torture. It needs to move to a neutral or big-tent approach on major social issues—gay marriage, abortion, and stem cells—the way Democrats have done with gun control and the death penalty. A Sister Souljah moment would help. Some respected party leader needs to give a swift, symbolic kick to a fringe figure who epitomizes the intolerance of the religious right—perhaps Jerry Falwell Jr., whose “Liberty” University recently rusticated its beyond-the-pale campus Democratic Club.
Obama’s open-ended expansion of government creates an opportunity for the GOP to propose a leaner, meaner alternative with more space for private enterprise, individual initiative, and dynamic growth. Efficiency-promoting tax reform, of the kind Reagan backed in 1986, would be a big improvement on unfunded tax cuts. After Obama, Republicans need to try for minority votes, both through the kind of immigration reform Bush favored and the kind of empowerment policies associated with the recently deceased Jack Kemp. Their strongest card may be one no Bush ever dared play: education vouchers for the poor. On health care, they might get behind a subsidized, individual-mandate framework as an alternative to Democratic plans that will have a tendency to morph into single-payer over time.
Republicans need to learn to function again as a conservative force, in the traditional, Burkean sense of the term. They need to get a grip on the Internet as a political organizing tool. They need to recruit some new faces and let some fresh air into their stifled conversations. Alternatively, they could just stick with Dick Cheney.
A version of this article also appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek.