Political Hay

The Republican Challenge

Can the new constitutional conservatism deliver?

By 11.3.10

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks for much of the Republican establishment when she derides the idea that acts of the federal government are unconstitutional just "because they're not enumerated within the powers of the Constitution."

At this writing, the results haven't shown whether Ms. Murkowski will remain in the U.S. Senate next year. But today conservatives can deride the idea that she remains within the mainstream of their movement or the Republican Party.

Murkowski was left weeping at the altar when Alaska Republicans held their primary, reduced to running the first serious write-in campaign for Senate since Strom Thurmond was elected. Win, lose or draw, the path to power for establishment Republicans and big-government conservatives has grown perilous.

All told, eight Republican senatorial candidates backed by the GOP establishment lost their primaries. Some like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada came up short. Others, like constitutional conservative Rand Paul in Kentucky, won big. Paul the younger took 56 percent of the vote against a Democrat who pulled out all the stops -- including playing the religion card -- against him.

The fact that some of these Tea Party conservatives lost, and a few old-school Republicans like John McCain and Mark Kirk won, does not change this basic fact: the mood of the party's primary electorate has shifted right, with policy, principles, and values trumping all other considerations. Slickness, savvy, and even electability are no longer the determining factors.

Can the new Republican majority in the House and the new GOP members of the Senate deliver on their promises to repeal Obamacare, reverse the tide of red ink, and restore the Constitution? Will Republicans stop ridiculing the doctrine of enumerated powers and the work of the Founding Fathers, instead becoming the party their conservative supporters demand?

It won't be easy. The Republican leadership empowered by yesterday's election received a gift it did not deserve. The GOP has been returned to power without showing it learned its lesson. And many of the swing voters who aided that restoration are independents, the very same fickle and pragmatic centrists who gave us unified Democratic control of the federal government in the first place.

Soon the Democrats, inspired by the example of Bill Clinton, will look for ways to turn the swing voters against the Tea Party. They will seek to undermine the coalition that produced Republican victories just as the Republicans shattered the coalition that elected the Democrats in 2006 and 2008.

For while the independents rejected George W. Bush's wars, the post-meltdown economy, and a Republican Congress that lost its way, they did not endorse a total leftward shift of the country. These same swing voters reject Obama's deficits, high unemployment, and a federal government that has failed to deliver without longing for Speaker Boehner or his sequel to the Contract With America.

Nevertheless, the country needs entitlement reform. It needs solvency. It needs a turn away from backbreaking tax increases that are to come, government control of health care, and all the burdens imposed by a federal leviathan unconstrained by the Constitution.

Whether the newly elected Republicans can deliver without tearing asunder the electoral majority that sent them to Washington remains to be seen. But try they must.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.