Like any large and diverse political party, Republicans often argue among themselves about the current posture of the party and the future direction it should take. We argue about the big things (defense and economic policies) and the small things (defining modern Conservatism in the U.S.A.). Sometimes, our squabbles spill out in the open, forcing Republican primary voters to settle the debates. Due to the size and diversity of our country, we are even susceptible to regional splits, where Republicans in one state or city have a different platform and agenda than those another state or small town. We even end up having Republican governors who disagree with each other about policy prescriptions for their states as well as state parties who rebel against Republican National Committee positions.
One of the biggest challenges and internal debates we face is an ideological paradox: how can you be hostile to government if you are seeking to be elected into the government? If you are elected to office, will you actually vote to strip yourself of the governing powers that you blast as an outsider?
Conservatives, by any definition you wrap around the term, believe in a policy of limited government interference in the economy, limited taxation, balanced budgets and a light touch approach to regulation. We generally believe that the nature of government (at any level) is self serving for those in charge, inflexible, slow, stagnant, unresponsive and extremely prone to abuse and corruption. While government serves important functions such as providing for the common defense of the nation and administering the judicial system, it can be easily manipulated to enrich a small group of unscrupulous benefactors at the expense of the masses. Conservatives believe that the best way to prevent widespread government abuse of power and economic manipulation is to ensure that government never amasses enough centralized power to carry it out on a large scale.
This political philosophy can easily be turned into a governing philosophy, full of specific policy recommendations with clear goals for improving the American quality of life. However, many activists have a core belief system that is hostile to government in all its forms. This leads to the awkward situation of candidates winning an election in which they railed against the ills of government...but then became part of the government they don't like very much. If you were a die hard, anti-government conservative, chances are you would not be running for office. If I hate pickles, I don't apply for a job at a company that packages them. Yet, some do.
Thus, there will always be tension between limited government, conservative activists and the candidates they support for office. An activist never has to be part of government institutions and can throw rocks from the sideline forever, even turning against their own party officials. Meanwhile, elected conservatives who assume office become part of the government and swear an oath to govern in the best interests of the people they serve. An activist can settle for incoherent rhetoric; but, an elected official actually has a responsibility to govern.
How does the party of limited government come up with a governing philosophy that anti-government activists and supporters can get behind?
This is the real test that faces every Republican elected official in the country. At the state and county level, the GOP seems to have answered that question to the satisfaction of many Conservatives. Despite limited national appeal in Presidential elections, the GOP has 29 sitting governors, 45 sitting U.S. Senators, a majority in the House of Representatives and 28 Republican controlled legislatures, with a handful of those being GOP super-majorities.
When Republicans demonstrate that they can govern and have a philosophy for how to do that, they can succeed. Yet, the national party has not done a very good job articulating a governing philosophy recently. They have allowed a fringe group of anti-government activists to get elected into seats they don't even want as part of a government system they despise. The 2014 primary election cycle has finally broken that trend of running candidates who don't know how to govern and don't care to learn.
If the Republicans become the majority party in the Senate and hold their majority in the House, they will have two years to demonstrate to the country that they are capable of governing. Even if President Obama vetoes three quarters of all the bills sent to his desk from Congress, there will be value for the country if the bills have substance and attempt to address national problems.
If 2014 goes well for the conservative movement in Congress, Republican officials will need to prove they are more than anti-government disciples, just as GOP governors and state legislators have been doing for the past few years. If a cohesive conservative agenda can be presented to the American people in 2016 and a strong leader with the skills to put that agenda into policy wins the party's nomination, the future will be very bright for the country and our party.
That can only happen if conservative activists of all backgrounds come together behind their candidates and elected officials. It's time to leave behind the empty rhetoric of talk shows and take up the grown up task of creating a governing philosophy to guide new public policy. If we want to make life better for everyone in our country, we must commit ourselves to the governing process so we can reshape our institutions into something our whole country can be proud of.
Governing is not as much fun as politicking; but, it is far more consequential and worthy of our efforts.
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