What's Next for the GOP

Published November 10, 2008

Commentary Web Exclusive

Some thoughts on the task ahead for the GOP:

1. Right now the attention of the country is (understandably) riveted on Obama and the Democratic Congress. There's not a great deal Republicans can, or even should, do about that. Democrats hold the reins of power; their fate is now largely in the hands of Democrats. If the Democrats succeed and the nation prospers, they will be hard to dislodge. If they fail and the country falters, they'll pay a price. The philosophical significance of the Obama presidency depends on whether he governs successfully (as did FDR) or poorly (as did Carter). It's premature for either side to pretend it knows whether or not Tuesday's election is a hinge point in American politics.

2. Republicans should avoid petty, small-minded criticisms of Obama. The public can sense when politicians are trying to manufacture criticism and outrage. That is what Republicans need to guard against: a reflexive tendency to lash out, particularly when the public is weary of such things after a seemingly endless campaign.

This doesn't mean Republicans shouldn't criticize Obama or the Democrats. They have an obligation to do so when the facts demand it. But the criticisms themselves need to be proportional, principled, even-tempered, and done on substantive policy grounds. There will be large and important political battles ahead. Republicans need to demonstrate patience and pick their moments. They will come.

3. A debate is under way in the GOP that strikes me as counterproductive. On the one hand are those who are said to be in the “reformist” camp; on the other hand are those who are in the “traditionalist” camp. The former has a tendency to insist that the era of Reagan is over; the other has a tendency to insist that the era of Reagan needs to be reclaimed.

The right approach would most likely be a hybrid of the two. As countless analysts have written, the GOP needs to develop an agenda that is modern, reform-minded, one that speaks to the middle class and the challenges of this era. At the same time, it would be self-destructive for the GOP to jettison its core principles in the aftermath of this election. The task is a perennial one for conservatives: to apply enduring principles to contemporary problems. And, for all the intra-party debate that is going on these days, on concrete issues the differences that divide most conservatives — including “reformists” and “traditionalists” — is fairly narrow. And those differences will probably narrow even more during an Obama presidency.

4. Developing a compelling agenda is obviously a priority for the GOP. The other is to find a compelling leader. A movement and a political party, especially one in disrepair, need a person to emerge who embodies the best it has to offer.

The conservative movement in America needed Ronald Reagan; the conservative movement in Great Britain needed Margaret Thatcher; the Democratic Party needed Bill Clinton; and the Labour Party in Great Britain needed Tony Blair.  Until a person emerges from within the Republican ranks to give compelling voice to its aims and principles — until a person emerges who is attractive, winning, persuasive, and in possession of rhetorical talent — there are limits to how much progress the Right will be able to make. Right now there are some impressive new faces on the conservative scene; but demonstrating potential is quite a different thing from realizing it.

5. Republicans should maintain a sense of historical perspective. In 1992, the GOP was said to be in terrible trouble. A young, 46-year-old governor from Arkansas won the presidency. He brought with him powerful majorities in both the House (258 Democratic seats v. 176 Republican seats) and the Senate (56 Democratic seats v. 44 Republican seats). There were predictions that conservatism was dead and that a generational shift in political power had taken place. Yet just 24 months later, a political earthquake hit, Republicans took control of the House for the first time in a half-century, and President Clinton found it necessary to assert his “relevance” at a press conference. And just two years after that, Clinton beat Bob Dole decisively.

In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry. It was the seventh GOP victory in the previous 10 presidential elections. Republicans held 55 Senate seats, 231 House seats, and 28 governorships. It was the high-water mark for the modern GOP. Only two years later, the bottom fell out; Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress. The trend continued, and in some respect accelerated, this year.

So things can change quickly and dramatically. That doesn't mean they will; but it is worth bearing in mind that commentators have a tendency to take a given moment in time and invest it with lasting meaning. Sometimes that is warranted (the 1980 election, for example, changed the trajectory of American politics in a fundamental way). Most of the time it is not.

Right now Barack Obama controls the stage and the spotlight; Republicans need to be patient. They don't know when their chance to reassert themselves will emerge. When it does, they need to be ready. Because readiness is all.


Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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