The Bullpen

The GOP must become modern — but not moderate

If conservatives want to win, we must broaden our appeal. But that doesn't mean abandoning our core principles

Matt K. Lewis

Assuming the country can survive another four years of Obama, Tuesday's loss might actually be good for the long-term health of the GOP, and thus, the nation. A victory would have allowed Republicans to sweep their problems under the rug — and postpone taking that long, hard look in the mirror. But let's face facts: Republicans simply must confront the fact that, at minimum, they need a makeover.

Ronald Reagan was such an amazing force in politics that Republicans have been dining out on his name and ideas for a generation. To be sure, Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America were visionary, but that was the exception that proves the rule.

Reagan was about the future, and we should be, too. Instead, the Republican Party has gotten lazy and fat. This is true in terms of logistics (is there any doubt that Team Obama outmaneuvered the Romney campaign in terms of data mining and get-out-the-vote operations?), but also in terms of new ideas.

Republicans have been operating under Mencken's maxim that "no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." Political consultants advise candidates to keep things simple — too simple. The notion that you can hurl trite, if patriotic, red meat and expect the red state masses to carry you over the finish line has been proven false. The public is more informed and sophisticated today, and it's time Republicans realize that. Conservatism is, of course, a serious intellectual philosophy. It's time we start acting like it. The so-called Republican "Southern Strategy" (to the extent it ever existed) is over.

The Republican Party has gotten lazy and fat.

Some of this is stylistic. I'm a severely conservative guy, but were I not a committed conservative ideologue, I would probably have voted for Obama. At a personal and stylistic level, I identify more with Obama than Romney. And that's a problem for the GOP.

Republicans can't afford to write off the college-educated, the urban, and the young. By the same token, they should not abandon core values. Reinvention involves embracing and reaffirming first principles, while simultaneously adapting and evolving. For this reason, I have advocated that the GOP needs "modernization, not moderation." 

A corollary is the necessary rise of "cosmopolitan conservatism." It is entirely possible to preserve conservative values and ideas while simultaneously making them more appealing to a changing America. The truly great politicians are equally comfortable talking to the auto worker in Michigan, the farmer in Kansas, and the writer on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Many of the conservatives who have truly changed America were cosmopolitan. Reagan was a Hollywood movie star. Jack Kemp was a professional quarterback. Buckley was an erudite aristocrat. 

Of course, it's not just about modernity and being cosmopolitan. It's also about taking a hard look at what conservatism actually means. An obvious place to start is with Latinos. It's pretty obvious Republicans can't win national elections by losing 70 percent of the nation's fastest-growing demographic. But here's the good news: There is nothing inherently conservative about being anti-immigrant. We are a nation of immigrants. As I've argued before, there are plenty of non-electoral reasons for conservatives to favor more legal Latino immigration. For example, immigrating is the most entrepreneurial thing a person can do. 

Wooing Latinos will not be as easy as nominating Marco Rubio or Susana Martinez in 2016. That symbolic move shouldn't be confused with the importance of doing the hard work, which will entail actually campaigning in the big cities, the neighborhoods, and barrios — and the end to advocating alienating proposals like "self-deportation."

Many Latinos are surely conservatives who just don't know it. But the fact that they may agree philosophically with the GOP means little if they feel unwelcomed or disliked. Marco Rubio may now be very well positioned to advocate some fresh new approaches, including a push for his version of the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants brought here as children to stay here legally (though not automatically to become citizens) if they have a clean record and attend college or join the military. 

And when it comes to immigration, perhaps Republicans should look to another country they admire: Israel. As the book Start-Up Nation notes: "The job of welcoming and encouraging immigration is a cabinet position" in Israel. What is more, new immigrants are encouraged to attend a six-month Hebrew immersion course, for which they receive a stipend. The GOP needs similarly bold ideas to rebrand its attitude on immigration.

A tougher issue, but one that should be discussed, is gay marriage. Some conservatives say it's time for the GOP to back same-sex weddings. Marriage, after all, is a conservative institution, and can have a salutary impact on the lives of anyone, gay or straight. Others strongly disagree.

Most conservatives I know are completely comfortable with the notion of civil unions. Nobody thinks that you shouldn't be allowed to legally designate anyone you want for hospital visitation, etc. But there is a real concern about redefining marriage. There is a sense — and it may be semantic — that "marriage" is a special union between one man and one woman. This is clearly an issue that Republicans will have to wrestle with. 

In the end, the good news for Republicans is that most of the GOP bench (Rubio, Jindal, et al.) is filled by cosmopolitan conservatives who can attract the young, the college-educated, and the urban.

Mitt Romney was a transitional figure. As a Redskins fan, I would equate him to Donovan McNabb — a guy we hoped would help us win — while we wait for the quarterback of the future (RG3).  

If there is a silver lining to Romney's loss, it's that Republicans are now forced to confront the future. 

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