It's too late for tea. At this stage the Republican Party needs a double espresso. Last week's demonstrations were just another of the post-election missteps for the GOP.
Signs with messages like "Hey Big Brother: Show Us Your Real Birth Certificate," "D.C.: District of Communism," and "Dear Obama, please stop destroying my future" may enthuse the base, but they drive moderates from a place many used to call home. The signs depict an angry political movement willing to exclude entire segments of voters for the sake of a lofty notion of principle.
And to what end? Electoral drubbings in 2006 and 2008.
It wasn't always like this. The era of Reagan is remembered as a period of conservative renewal, and yet, it was also a time when the ranks of the GOP featured many moderate elements.
Consider the historical reminiscence offered by U.S. Senator Arlen Specter in a December 2007 speech: "When I was elected in 1980, the Wednesday lunch club was filled with moderates: Chafee of Rhode Island, Mathias of Maryland, Weicker of Connecticut, Danforth of Missouri, Stafford of Vermont, Cohen of Maine, Hatfield and Packard of Oregon, Boschwitz and Durenberger of Minnesota, Lugar of Indiana, and my colleague, John Heinz, of Pennsylvania. Today, there is no Wednesday lunch club, and the moderates can meet in a phone booth."
Unfortunately, current party leaders don't share Specter's sense of nostalgia.
At a conservative confab immediately after the election, leaders from the right emerged convinced that 2008 was not a repudiation of their political philosophy. "The purpose of these meetings is quite simple: The conservative movement is going to retake America," said Media Research Center president Brent Bozell. Activist Richard Viguerie echoed those sentiments: "Conservatism did not lose--big government Republicanism lost."
Rush Limbaugh completed the wagon circle: "The conservative movement does not need to be rebuilt," he said. "We had some people abandon the conservative movement, and they need to be abandoned." Months later, of course, Limbaugh would be perceived by some as the titular head of the Republican Party after saying he hoped President Obama would fail if he planned to implement an agenda of "far-left collectivism."
No doubt that comment was on Michael Steele's mind a few weeks later, when he said Rush's show could be "ugly" and "incendiary." Too bad Steele didn't stand his ground. Instead, he called his comments "inarticulate." Soon thereafter, he'd be fending off the objections of the right again after suggesting that abortion was a woman's "individual choice."
Steele's failure to shore up his conservative credentials was good news for Newt Gingrich, who's been angling for a return to Republican leadership. "Gingrich eyes possible White House run in 2012," read the Associated Press headline last week. One GOP strategist boasted that Gingrich is the Republicans' "intellect-in-chief."
All this while the bickering between Sarah Palin and Levi Johnston is aired for all to see.
The GOP continues to flounder onward with the same irredeemable leaders touting the same exclusionary politics. Limbaugh, Gingrich, and Palin are important voices for the base (only). But they're the wrong people to lead the GOP out of the political badlands. Instead of settling for conservative isolationism, the Republican Party needs to widen the net and open the tent.
In 2008, Barack Obama won 50 percent of the nation's suburbs -- home to the socially moderate, fiscally conservative, tough-on-defense voters deciding national elections today. In fact, every successful presidential candidate has won the suburban areas of the country since 1980.
Those are the voters the GOP needs to pursue on its way back to the political majority. Instead of retracing the tactics of a bygone era, Republicans should be taking a page out of the Democrats' book from the last three years. Drop the litmus test for social issues like abortion and funding for stem cell research. Take the words "global warming" off the blacklist. Mine the state legislatures and congressional delegations for young, attractive candidates not beholden to the right wing.
Today's prototypical Republican candidate should be moderate on social issues. Tough on defense. Tight with the purse strings. Willing to forgo the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the "liberal media," which only serves to reinforce the left-right, red state-blue state, liberal-conservative stalemates voters clearly rejected last year.
And yes, this post-modern Republican should be capable of offering more than the generic two cents about lowering taxes and resisting socialism.
Think Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who in 1998 extended benefits to same-sex partners of city employees, and lived with a gay couple for six months in 2001. Not the presidential candidate who opposed a civil union law in New Hampshire because it was the "equivalent of marriage."
Or Governor Mitt Romney, who wrote on a NARAL questionnaire in 2002, "I respect and will protect a woman's right to choose." Not the presidential aspirant who called abortion "the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother" five years later.
Or the John McCain who called Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" in 2000. Not the candidate who sought the endorsements of John Hagee and Rod Parsley eight years later.
The era of pumping the base is over.
Michael A. Smerconish hosts two nationally syndicated daily radio programs and is the author of Morning Drive: Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Talking.
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