Two major debates face conservative Republicans about the future of the party. The first, rekindled by Sen. Arlen Specter's switch to the Democratic Party, is whether the GOP should move further leftward. The second is whether conservatives should tone down their advocacy on social issues. History is on the side of outspoken conservatives in both debates.
To learn where to position themselves, some big-government GOP loyalists are going on so-called listening tours. The trouble is, skulking around the country on pandering tours isn't leadership. Politicians, lobbyists and campaign consultants who caused the problem cannot fix it. You can also rebrand damaged goods all you want, but they're still damaged goods, which is why GOP establishment leaders are incapable of understanding the problem -- it's them.
The ascendancy of conservatives to power was done by boat-rockers, not establishment politicians. Barry Goldwater laid the foundation of reducing government to conform to the Constitution. Ronald Reagan demonstrated that the conservative vision of smaller government is one of prosperity. The Gingrich revolution started making congressional leaders the servants of the people, not vice versa.
In each case, the message was reforming the Washington establishment. President Obama's campaign used a variation of that theme. His message of change, while obfuscated, clearly resonated with the grass roots. He remains popular, although polls show his version of change is substantially less so.
The current GOP leadership has no message or vision that appeals to the grass roots. We never hear from them the boat-rocking message of successful conservatives.
Instead, the public's image of the GOP is that it is incompetent (think Hurricane Katrina), corrupt (think Jack Abramoff, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, etc.) and without principles (think wild spending, bailouts, earmarks and a lack of a true conservative vision). Republicans can try smoke and mirrors, but they really need new leaders who will reverse the big-government policies of Bush 43 and congressional Republicans and articulate and move a conservative agenda forward.
Democrats have nothing to fear from today's Republican Party leaders. That's why Democrats have taken to targeting Rush Limbaugh and others who aren't in formal leadership positions in the GOP but who forcefully articulate a conservative vision.
Republicans need the political equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous. First, they must admit their problem (many are in denial). Next, they must promise never to do it again. Then they must recognize what caused the problem ("Washingtonitis," abandoning the principles of the party and allowing people who didn't believe in the principles of the party to assume leadership positions). Last, when in a hole, stop digging.
Instead, Republicans are still digging. The GOP has lost the Goldwater/Reagan vision of rolling back unconstitutional government and restoring it to its prescribed authority. Its leaders seem barely capable of fighting for basic GOP principles of low taxes, a strong national defense and traditional values.
The American people have said clearly in the last two national elections that they don't like the GOP of Bush, Karl Rove, John McCain, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, etc. All the rebranding efforts and pandering tours won't work as long as the party remains under the leadership of the team that was a party-wrecking disaster on the order of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bush 41 and Bush 43.
In the 2008 election, Republicans acquiesced to the Specter/Colin Powell wing and nominated the one member of their party most famously critical of conservatives and most open to partnerships with people from across the aisle, John McCain. That obviously didn't work.
For Republicans to remove the stigma of Bush 43 and his GOP Congress, they must be able to honestly communicate to Americans that they are "Open Under New Management" -- but with old, time-tested principles.
The second debate is whether conservatives should tone down on social issues such as abortion and marriage.
Those, however, who win without principle have neither an agenda nor a mandate and rarely change anything for the better. In the history books, centrists and accommodators end up alongside James Buchanan, who compromised with slavery, and Neville Chamberlain, who compromised with Nazism. Political leaders we respect are ones who changed political reality, not those who accommodated themselves to political reality.
Leftist activists on social issues not only advocate loudly, even threateningly, they are happy to achieve their objectives through unconstitutional methods such as judicial activism.