Political Hay

Renewing the Contract

Conservatism didn't lose last night, but Republicanism sure did.

By 11.7.06

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Those conservatives who are waking up dispirited about the Democratic Party's takeover of the House and its gains in the Senate would be wise to think back to a Wednesday two years ago.

On the morning of November 3, 2004, conservatives were euphoric as President Bush was re-elected comfortably and the GOP gained seats in the House and Senate -- knocking off Tom Daschle in the process. Republicans began to talk in terms of being a permanent majority. The Democrats, meanwhile, were demoralized -- seemingly destined for political irrelevance.

A lot has changed in two years, and a lot will change between now and November 4, 2008 -- when Americans go to the polls to elect President Bush's successor. Rather than seeing Tuesday's defeat as a crisis, Republicans should look at it as an opportunity to rehabilitate the party in time for that crucial election.

In assessing last night's results it is important to note that it was not a defeat for conservatism; it was a defeat for Republicanism, or at least, what Republicanism has come to represent. In the past 12 years, Republicans went from the party that promised "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money" to the party of the Bridge to Nowhere; it took control of Congress on a pledge to "end its cycle of scandal and disgrace" and went down in defeat as the party of Tom DeLay and Mark Foley.

Having abandoned its core principles, the Republican Party had nothing to run on this year, so its campaign strategy centered on attacking Nancy Pelosi -- a questionable tactic given that, according to some polls, more than half of the country had never even heard of her.

Republican strategists who projected optimism over the past few months cited as reasons for their confidence: fundraising, incumbency advantage, gerrymandering and new innovations such as "microtargeting." But as this election made perfectly clear, none of this can bail out a party that is bereft of ideas.

We will hear a lot of reasons for why Republicans lost this year. We will hear that they lost because of an unpopular war, an unpopular president, a culture of corruption, a traditional anti-incumbent six-year itch and a dispirited base. But one thing is for sure. Republicans did not lose on a platform of limiting the size and scope of government.

Just as this election wasn't a defeat for conservatism, it wasn't a victory for liberalism. Democrats intentionally avoided a publicized "Contract With America"-style platform advancing a progressive agenda in favor of making the campaign a referendum on President Bush. The closest thing they had to a platform, "A New Direction for America," was not a sweeping ideological document, but a laundry list of initiatives such as making college tuition tax-deductible, raising the minimum wage, and negotiating drug prices. Though a Democratic majority will likely roll back President Bush's tax cuts, they didn't advertise that in the "fiscal discipline" section of their platform. (It is a testament to how enamored Republicans became with big government that they enabled Democrats to run as the party of fiscal discipline.)

After controlling the House of Representatives for the last 12 years and the White House for the last six, a lot of pent up anger developed toward Republicans. If the GOP had to lose an election as a result of this sentiment, better this year than in 2008, when Americans will choose who will lead the War on Terror into the next decade.

The Democratic Party will take power in January. Either they'll demonstrate to Americans that they have no governing philosophy, or they'll play to their anti-war base by pushing for a premature withdrawal from Iraq and go overboard with investigations of President Bush.

While the exposure of the Democratic Party during the next two years will help Republicans, the GOP should not head into the next election thinking that running against Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton will ensure victory. Instead, the Republicans need to differentiate themselves by returning to their small government roots and once again becoming the party of ideas.

In 1994, Republicans swept into power by signing a contract with America. That contract has been breached, and unless they want to lose the big prize in 2008, it's time for that pact to be renewed.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein