Republicans must go back to conservativism

Mon, Feb 13, 2012, 00:00

WATCHING THE Republican Party struggling to agree on a presidential candidate, one wonders whether the GOP shouldn’t just sit this election out – just give 2012 a pass.

You know how in Scrabble, sometimes you look at your seven letters and you’ve got only vowels that spell nothing? What do you do? You go back to the pile. You throw your letters back and hope to pick up better ones to work with.

That’s what Republican primary voters seem to be doing. They just keep going back to the pile but still coming up with only vowels that spell nothing.

There’s a reason for that: their pile is out of date. The party has let itself become the captive of conflicting ideological bases: anti- abortion advocates, anti- immigration activists, social conservatives worried about the sanctity of marriage, libertarians who want to shrink government, and anti-tax advocates who want to drown government in a bathtub.

Sorry, but you can’t address the great challenges America faces today with that incoherent mix of hardened positions.

I’ve argued that maybe we need a third party to break open our political system, but that’s a long shot. What we definitely and urgently need is a second party – a coherent Republican opposition that is offering constructive conservative proposals on the key issues and is ready for strategic compromises to advance its interests and those of the country.

Without that, the best of the Democrats – who have been willing to compromise – have no partners and the worst have a free pass for their own magical thinking.

Since such a transformed Republican party is highly unlikely, maybe the best thing would be for the actual party to get crushed in this election and forced into a fundamental rethink – something the Democrats had to go through when they lost three in a row between 1980 and 1988.

We need a “Different Kind of Republican” – the way Bill Clinton gave us a “Different Kind of Democrat” – because when I look at America’s three greatest challenges today, I don’t see the Republican candidates offering realistic answers to any of them.

The first is responding to the challenges and opportunities of an era in which globalisation and the information technology revolution have dramatically intensified, creating a hyperconnected world.

This is a world in which education, innovation and talent will be rewarded more than ever. This is a world in which there will be no more “developed” and “developing countries” but only HIEs (high-imagination-enabling countries) and LIEs (low- imagination-enabling countries).

And this is a world that America is hard-wired to thrive in – provided we invest in better infrastructure, post-secondary education for all, more talented immigrants, regulations that incentivise risk-taking and prevent recklessness, and government-financed research to push out the boundaries of science and let our venture capitalists pluck the best flowers.

There is no way we can thrive in this era without this kind of public-private partnership. We need strong government, but limited government, which enables our companies and individuals to compete globally.

It’s the kind of public-private partnership that Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and George HW Bush embraced.

The second of our great long- term challenges is our huge debt and entitlement obligations. They can’t be fixed without raising and reforming taxes and trimming entitlements and defence. We absolutely cannot just cut entitlements and defence. That would imperil the personal security and national security of every American.

We must also reform taxes to raise more revenues.

However, when all the Republican candidates last year said they would not accept a deal with Democrats that involved even $1 in tax increases in return for $10 in spending cuts, the GOP cut itself off from reality. It became a radical party, not a conservative one.

And for the candidates to wrap themselves in a cartoon version of Ronald Reagan – a real conservative who raised taxes, including the gasoline tax, when he discovered his own cuts had gone too far – is fraudulent.

Our third great challenge is how we power our future – without dangerously polluting and warming the Earth – as the global population grows from seven billion to nine billion by 2050 and more and more of them want to drive, eat and live like Americans.

Two billion more people who want to live like us? We can’t drill our way out of that challenge, which is why energy efficiency and clean power will be the next great global industry.

Real conservatives – like Richard Nixon, the father of the Environmental Protection Agency, and George HW Bush, the author of the first cap-and- trade deal to curb acid rain – believe in conserving.

The current Republican candidates are so captured by the oil and coal lobbies that they cannot think seriously about this huge opportunity for energy innovation.

Until the GOP stops being radical and returns to being conservative, it won’t provide what the country needs most now – competition. Competition with Democrats on the issues that will determine whether we thrive in the 21st century.

We need to hear conservative fiscal policies, energy policies, immigration policies and public- private partnership concepts – not radical ones. Would somebody please restore our second party? The country is starved for a grown-up debate.