09 May 2009

Doctor, it hurts when I do *this*

If Mike Huckabee and his loyal band of "values voters" have their way, the ideological purification of the Republican Party will never end.

This week, Sen. John McCain and House minority whip Eric Cantor unveiled a program called the National Council for a New America, a fledgling attempt by a number of high-profile conservatives (from across the GOP's ideological spectrum, it must be noted) to rebrand the Republican Party and expand its reach. McCain and Cantor said they hope to communicate with voters in a way that would expand the Republican ranks, and attract moderates and "like-minded Democrats" with their policy prescriptions.

Sounds like just the tonic for a fast-shrinking minority party that has been banished to the wilderness, right?

Because Mike Huckabee -- the former Arkansas governor, current moralistic proselytizer, and next great FOX News windbag -- doesn't agree with you.

Huckabee, along with preeminent social conservatives such as Tony Perkins and Ken Blackwell, have expressed their strong distaste for the group and blasted it for its lack of focus on social issues (such as abortion and gay marriage) among its highlighted policy areas.

Blackwell said the group will inevitably come crawling back to the social conservative bloc because social conservatism and economic conservatism inevitably go hand in hand.

No, they don't. Social and economic conservatism are two entirely different things. Economic conservatism reflects the idea that the government is an inefficient player in the marketplace and its influence should therefore be limited. Social conservatism reflects the idea that the government is "daddy" and must save us from gambling on the internet or performing research on a group of cells in a petri dish.

The attitude put forth by Huckabee, et al. is that there must be ideological uniformity among all Republicans on all issues, but most especially on social ones. This is the same idiotic attitude that caused many (most?) conservatives to trash Arlen Specter on his way out the door two weeks ago and remark "good riddance." It's the same attitude grounded not in polling data or voting record, but in McCain derangement syndrome and the gospel according to Limbaugh, that maintains that the reason Barack Obama is in the White House is because John McCain wasn't conservative enough.

The Republican Party has to be more inclusive. That does not mean it needs to move to the left.

It simply has to stop subjecting every single judicial nominee, every single party leader and every single candidate for national office to an ironclad, ideologically rigid litmus test. It must be receptive to an economic conservative who believes that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion. It must be similarly receptive to a "values voter" who supported the president's stimulus package.

This pervasive idiocy has to change. If Barack Obama has taught us anything, it's that you can be very, very ideologically partisan and still have two-thirds of the country support you.

I applaud Sen. McCain, Rep. Cantor, Gov. Romney and the rest of the National Council for a New America for attempting to expand the Republican tent. Barack Obama took a liberal Democratic platform that has been roundly rejected by voters for the last generation and, by framing his message in such a way and targeting moderate and disaffected voters, parlayed that into the presidency and an approval rating over 60 percent. 

There is still much talk of Reagan these days. But do you know what made Reagan such a special politician?

His message was one of inclusion. Throughout most of his presidency, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the country supported him. He worked across the aisle. He appealed to conservatives, but he was equally beloved by moderates who bought into his policies and his message. He did not drive wedges in the Republican Party and stoke ideological divisions. He didn't submit members of his cabinet or Republican congressional leaders to litmus tests.

Under President Reagan, the GOP was the quintessential "big tent" party -- he appealed to everyone from highly educated economic conservatives like George Will to hardworking, blue-collar moderates in the rust belt. Yes, of course Reagan was conservative. But the reason Republicans enjoyed such success under his leadership wasn't because he somehow pulled closet conservatives out of the woodwork, but rather because his message appealed to so many people. 

The harsh reality for the likes of Huckabee, Tony Perkins and Rush Limbaugh is that the Gipper did not win 59 percent of the popular vote in 1984 because 59 percent of the country is right of center. 

Why can't the Republican Party appeal to more people?

The GOP is on the fast track to irrelevance. There is a good argument to be made that it's already there.

Barack Obama singlehandedly transformed the Democrats into a big-tent party by sole virtue of his platitudes and his message.

There's no reason Republicans shouldn't try to do the same.


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