The Corner

The FRC vs. the GOP

Via Dan Gilgoff’s U.S. News blog, I see that Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, is unhappy:

In another step away from its conservative roots, Republican members of the House unveiled The National Council for a New America in hopes of recasting the Party’s ailing identity. The effort only underscores the Republicans’ present identity crisis, as the GOP leadership kicked off the campaign devoid of the values that once caused voters to identify with the party.

The group’s priorities, which were unveiled at a pizza parlor press conference, include the economy, health care, education, energy, and national security. Notice anything conspicuously absent? Former Gov. Jeb Bush explained the values void by saying it was time for the GOP to give up its “nostalgia” for Reagan-era ideas and look forward to new “relevant” ideas. (Yes, because that worked so well for Republicans in 2006 and 2008!) Bush ignored the fact that abandoning the array of principles that Reagan espoused is exactly what got the GOP into this mess. No one is suggesting that we try living in the past, but President Reagan’s principles are the ones that guided our nation from its very inception. Turning away from those fundamental truths would be a death knell for the GOP as little would be left to distinguish the Republicans from the Democrats.

Too many Republicans leaders are running scared on the claims of the Left and the media that social conservatism is a dead-end for the GOP. If that were the case, why are pro-family leaders like Mike Huckabee creating such excitement in the conservative base? The Republican establishment doesn’t draw a crowd. Governor Sarah Palin does.

I think Perkins is being unfair to Jeb Bush here. I think by implication he is also being unfair to Romney, Cantor, and even Palin, all of whom are now involved in the council. I don’t think there is any good reason to suspect these people of attempting to sideline social conservatism within the Republican party.

I disagree with Perkins on a few other matters as well. It is a misreading of the 2006 and 2008 elections to suggest that they show the folly of trying out “new ideas” (what new ideas were tried?). And a political figure’s ability to excite conservatives does not prove his or her ability to assemble a national majority. I am certainly not one of the people who want to blame social conservatives for recent Republican failures. But the people who do take that view have never denied that Palin or Huckabee appeals to many conservatives. They deny that they can forge a majority coalition including conservatives and moderates.

Perkins’s basic premise that the council is not taking on social issues is sound. Let me suggest a different way of looking at the council that might reduce his concern. First, I’d point out that what the council is doing is very similar to what Haley Barbour did at the RNC in the first two years of the Clinton administration: holding panel discussions around the country to discuss conservative policy ideas. Barbour’s effort didn’t stress the social issues either, but its inattention to them did not mean that the influence of social conservatism in the Republican party declined during the early 1990s. Far from it.

Second, and more important: The great political weakness of the Republican party, it seems to me, is its lack of appeal on exactly the kind of domestic-policy questions that the council is looking at: jobs, wages, health care, higher-education financing, and so on. Perhaps the council is looking at them because it shares that assessment. If so, Perkins ought to view it as a good thing. (Would he prefer a series of panels on “rethinking our approach to social issues”?) The chief political problem for social conservatives in recent years, indeed, has been that their political champions have not had a winning domestic-policy platform. Social conservatives should therefore applaud efforts to develop one.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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