As the race for the Republican nominee has kicked off over the past few months, I’ve experienced strangeness and growing horror. A sense of alienation within my own party probably accounts for the strange feeling. The horror likely comes from realizing that if we don’t make the right choice in 2012, we could be in for a second term of Obama.
There was, of course, the embarrassment of Donald Trump, whose nutty birtherism seemed to give him entrée as a Republican contender. There’s been the rise of Michele Bachmann — a very talented politician, but the ability to get lots of media attention does not necessarily a good candidate make. (See Palin, Sarah.) The two candidates who actually have the most potential mass appeal — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — have been savaged most viciously by their own, Romney having run-ins with El Rushbo (who called Romney “out of step”) and Huntsman seemingly anathema to so-called conservatives who deride his service as ambassador to China under Obama, instead of appreciating that a competent and conservative public servant served our country at a flashpoint posting. Is this attempt to drive moderates to extinction, I wondered, going to prevent us from retaking the White House?
Anxiety is in the air. David Brooks put his finger on it when he questioned whether or not the GOP was still a “normal” political party. He categorized the tea party as more of a “psychological protest than a practical alternative to governing.” It might be tempting to dismiss Brooks’s column as another example of the longstanding tensions between the Huckabee-hating Beltway elites and the tea-party rankand file. But that would be missing the larger point. What Brooks described, and what the 2012 field has shown us so far, is really an ongoing fight over the party’s future viability, i.e., its very identity. It’s pretty clear right now who is winning the fight — and unfortunately, it’s not David Brooks, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, or even Tim Pawlenty.
With this in mind, I was excited to read an insightful and important book by Margaret Hoover called American Individualism. Hoover, a 34-year-old conservative commentator and great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover (you’ve probably seen her on The O’Reilly Factor; disclosure alert, she’s also a friend) has written a manifesto calling for a major course correction. To attract the next generation of Republicans, Hoover says, we need to re-brand conservatism or risk extinction.
Hoover nails how Millennials — that next generation of voters, ages 18 to 29 — view the GOP’s brand as almost exclusively socially conservative. She discusses what she calls “conservative tribalism,” the labels — neocon, crunchy con, paleocon, lib-con, and theocon — that are tearing the party apart in the absence of a unifying leader. She points out that when Millennials look at the infighting, they see only the most socially conservative ideas winning. But if we were to focus on conservative principles embodying individual and economic freedom, we could actually tap into this fifth of the electorate. Hoover’s message is that there are conservative issues that should be a priority — such as education reform, expanding legal immigration, and combating radical Islam — and there are those that should not — fighting gay rights, pushing intelligent design, or denying climate change.
Hoover’s book is not going to make her the darling of religious conservatives, to be sure. In fact, she’s likely to become a target for what she dubs the “RINO hunters,” hunters of that elusive species, the Republican in Name Only. But she reminds us that many conservative heroes embraced by all the tribes, from tea partiers to neocons — heroes like Frederick Hayek, Irving Kristol, and Milton Friedman — weren’t social conservatives at all. They’d be targets of the RINO hunters, too. She points out that Reagan himself was very “impure” — he raised taxes, left Lebanon, and cut deals with Tehran — yet he was still the most successful conservative president — thanks to his pragmatism, not in spite of it.
So let’s be on the lookout for the next Reagan, not the next Trump. He or she is not likely to be found among the candidates the tea party finds most desirable (who are mostly unelectable) . With the debate over the debt ceiling raging in Washington, we have the chance to change course. There’s no culture to defend if the economy implodes because conservatives let ideological principle get in the way of the reality of governing, which seemed to be the tea party’s modus operandi last week.
By pandering too much in the run-up to 2012, we will not only lose an election. We’ll also lose the battle for conservative principles that can rebuild our government and country. It’s becoming a hard argument to win over disaffected Obama supporters who are disillusioned with his inability to stand for anything — be it gay marriage or the half-hearted, inept withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan — and keep the Millennials on board who want to vote Republican. It’s the cure for what ails the party, and for the moment, me.
— Elise Jordan is a New Yorkâ’based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008 and 2009 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.