People usually think more about what went right and what went wrong after a loss than after a victory. Accordingly, Republicans will have a lot of thinking time over the holidays.
We would be wise to start with the biblical notion of first taking the log out of your own eye before worrying about the splinter in someone else’s. In other words, Republicans would do well to first focus on how we were beaten in November not by Democrats, but in many cases by those in our own party.
Our party took nothing short of a shellacking nationally. Some on the left will say our electoral losses are a repudiation of our principles of lower taxes, smaller government and individual liberty. But Election Day was not a rejection of those principles — in fact, cutting taxes and spending were important tenets of Barack Obama’s campaign.
Instead, voters rejected the fact that while Republicans have campaigned on the conservative themes of lower taxes, less government and more freedom, they have consistently failed to govern that way. Americans didn’t turn away from conservatism, they instead turned away from many who faked it.
As such, I believe rebuilding our party starts with three key principles.
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First, let’s go back to the principle of saying what you mean and meaning what you say. A political party is much like a brand, and brands thrive or wither based on how consistently they deliver on what they promise. Along those same lines, it’s important for brands to stick to their knitting. If John Deere’s tractor sales are declining, they don’t say, “Tell you what, let’s make cars and airplanes, too.” Instead, they focus on producing better tractors.
I make that point because there’s a real temptation in Republican circles right now to try and be all things to all people. We tried that already — it was called “compassionate conservatism,” and it got us nowhere.
Second, our loyalties need to be to ideas, not to individuals. Ted Stevens in many ways personified the opposite of what the GOP is supposed to be about, reveling in his ability to secure pork and turning a blind eye to ethical lapses.
There needs to be a high standard for our franchisees. In other words, I believe Republicans and conservatives must agree on our core principles. St. Augustine called for “unity in the essentials, diversity in the nonessentials, and charity in all things,” and while I believe there should always be a big GOP tent, there must also be a shared agreement on the essentials — including expanding liberty, encouraging entrepreneurship and limiting the reach of government in people’s everyday lives.
In this regard, the tent cannot be so big as to include political franchisees who don’t act on the core tenets of conservatism — and as a consequence harm the brand and undermine others’ work on it.
Finally, we need to look toward the states for answers, rather than toward Washington.
I am struck by how many of my colleagues around the country were quietly advancing the kinds of reforms and conservative principles that Washington politicians would do well to emulate.
In Louisiana, Bobby Jindal is making market-based reforms to his state’s Medicaid program, while over in Georgia, Sonny Perdue is tackling health care affordability with a Health Savings Account program. Sarah Palin has cut spending and fought corruption in Alaska. Rick Perry in Texas has balanced the budget while cutting taxes, creating more than a million jobs in the process. Mitch Daniels in Indiana is innovating when it comes to building infrastructure.
I could go on, but the bottom line is that you don’t have to look far to find examples of how sticking to conservative principles not only yields a better-working government but, frankly, yields electoral success as well.
It’s not only imperative that our party returns to its fiscally conservative roots but that we do so soon. As a nation, we’re on the hook for $52 trillion, and that represents an invisible $450,000 mortgage owed by every household in America.
We’ve thrown $2.3 trillion toward bailouts and a stimulus this year with little to show for it in the way of results, with seemingly hundreds of billions more being contemplated by Congress each day. Borrowing from Medicare, Social Security, our grandkids and the Chinese to remedy a problem created by too much borrowing strikes me as odd, and hardly the “change” Americans really want.
Where change must come, though, is in once again making our party one that governs on the principles it professes. That change starts with each of us in elected office, and more importantly, with each person who cares about returning to conservative principles making their voices heard.
Mark Sanford is governor of South Carolina. He previously served three terms in the House of Representatives, from 1995 to 2001.