As pundits across the country sift through the electoral debris, President Obama's re-election affords an opportunity for Republican introspection. The recent election demonstrates that American political ideologies, cultural demographics, and even the level of political engagement are transitioning in a way not seen in generations. Conservatives face the challenge of determining how the principles of limited government, individual responsibility, strong families, and free markets can regain a foothold during the change.
Republicans need to be frank about the election results. Their electorate ran a "moderate" candidate against a President whose largest policy accomplishments have been poorly received during a period of lackluster economic performance. Instead of a Reaganesque sweep, Republicans failed to gain any meaningful traction. In fact they actually lost ground. Arguing that the President did not win as many electoral votes as he did in 2008 is about as useful as finding a silver lining in being beaten by two touchdowns instead of three.
Fundraising was not the reason for Republicans' failure. According to The New York Times, the candidates, national party committees and primary "super PACs" for Romney and Obama each raised almost $1 billion. Outside spending only added to those numbers.
And while Hurricane Sandy may have impacted Romney's momentum, Obama's handling of the terrorist attacks in Libya, continued economic challenges and several controversial policy initiatives such as The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act continued to provide numerous opportunities for Romney.
In fact, given the known challenges facing President Obama, the results of this election may have been determined well before the so-called "undecideds" cast their votes. Peggy Noonan, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former Reagan speech writer, noted that these results may have been baked into the cake for some time.
If that is the case, either the conservative message or the Republican messengers failed to connect with a majority of Americans well before Election Day. Conservatives point to tomes of historic data and research to back up their positions: Spending substantially more than government revenues is a bad idea; central economic planning has rarely produced positive results; and strong two-parent families that worship regularly produce the best economic and social outcomes for children. To strengthen that message, the test cases of New York, Illinois and California give little reason to support any number of their liberal policy choices nationwide. According to Gallup polling, 75 percent of Americans even self-identify as conservative or moderate.
In short, Americans have lost faith in conservative and even constitutional ideals because only a rhetorical difference separates the so-called conservative messengers from their opponents.
Either the principles upon which this nation was founded no longer successfully apply to political life in America or Republicans have failed to faithfully engage them. The evidence seems to support the latter. Consider just the federal debt. Republicans have refused to raise taxes while continuing to give their assent to increased spending. Their concern over the political fallout from actually forcing a reduction of federal spending to levels that track closer to revenues trumps the constitutional principle of a limited government. As a result, the political left secures the programmatic planning and spending it wants without the corresponding confiscatory tax rates that would cause the electorate to stop it.
Rather than strive for a government limited by constitutional boundaries, Republicans have unsuccessfully attempted to control an unbridled leviathan for their own ends. Simply waving the Constitution and parading its forgotten words will do little to change that reality.
The message of returning to constitutional principles is not broken, it is not out of touch and it has a timeless practicality. Unfortunately, many Republicans have asked Americans to support those principles while simultaneously failing to practice them. In order to introduce a meaningful alternative to modern politics, Republicans must refocus on the tested ideas that guided America for generations and be willing to pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to see them to fruition.
Cameron Smith is Policy Director and General Counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.
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