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The road ahead: Obama voters may have saved the GOP

| Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008

God bless the American public for saving the Republican Party from itself.

I'm fine with the national results -- a strong victory by Barack Obama and enough Democrat congressional victories to teach Republicans a lesson -- but not so many that there's no hope for the GOP to climb back out of its hole in the next decade.

But that hole has gotten pretty deep. It would have been better had Republicans learned from their 30-seat House loss in 2006. But the party can be amazingly stubborn.

A lot of conservatives now are weeping and gnashing their teeth -- a spectacle I find quite entertaining. We've got the faux McCain "aide" blasting Sarah Palin as a not-so-bright prima donna who didn't even know that Africa is a continent and not a country.

That's pretty much what her critics have said all along but the GOP's cultural-conservative base sees her as the future. If they are right, expect Democrat dominance to last through our lifetimes.

Expect the battles to get crazier, as conservatives huff and puff about the evils that the Obama administration will foist on the nation. They've got a point. But they will be warning about an oncoming socialistic tsunami, even as they failed to stand up to Bush's socialistic tidal wave.

They will insist that President Obama will sell out the country to its enemies, which is nonsense. Some day, the conservative adults are going to have to reassert themselves.

Of course, the media will need to carefully monitor the new administration. But if the conservative movement and the Republican Party can't get past the "Obama is an anti-American terrorist sympathizer" rhetoric, it will never learn the lessons it needs to learn to get back into power.

After the election, a McCain supporter asked me whether I was happy with the results. He asked the question in an accusatory tone, given that I never could support the McCain-Palin ticket.

My response: "The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of Republicans, McCain and the Bush administration, which abandoned limited-government conservatism in favor of me-too socialism and a vulgar and mean-spirited conservatism.

Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich have said the same thing. Most of the Dems elected to Congress in 2008 are moderates (as Dems go) and Obama will probably govern as a centrist-liberal. The GOP will regroup in defeat and find its voice again and start offering a positive message -- kind of like Reagan.

New, young GOP voices will emerge and the republic will survive.

So while I'm not dancing in the streets, I am pleased to see the merciful end of the Bush era. Some time in the wilderness will be a good thing for the GOP.

In October 2006, before the Republican Party's last well-deserved defeat, former Republican majority leader Armey offered the following warning:

"Where did the revolution go astray• How did we go from the big ideas and vision of 1994 to the cheap political point-scoring on meaningless wedge issues of today -- from passing welfare reform and limited government to banning horse meat and same-sex marriage• The answer is simple: Republican lawmakers forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position and began putting politics over policy. Now, the Democrats are reaping the rewards of our neglect -- and we have no one to blame but ourselves."

The GOP needs to learn that anger doesn't sell. McCain was the angriest candidate I can remember. His loathing of his opponent ("that one") was obvious during the debates, even though McCain redeemed himself a bit with a classy concession speech. Had that McCain showed up on the campaign trail, he might now be the president-elect.

There was a darkness to this campaign, epitomized by Palin's lauding of the "pro-America" parts of the country, as if the rest of us live in "un-American" areas. Actually, Obama learned the positive "city on the hill" lesson from Reagan, even if the two men's politics are miles apart.

The party also needs to remind itself of the dangers of anti-intellectualism. After my criticism of Palin, I heard from many conservatives who argued that Palin's obvious ignorance of national political issues is in itself a good thing because it proves that she's not an elitist! Conservative columnist David Brooks dissected this thinking:

"(Palin) represents a fatal cancer to the Republican Party. When I first started in journalism, I worked at the National Review for Bill Buckley, (who) famously said he'd rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. But he didn't think those were the only two options. He thought it was important to have people on the conservative side who celebrated ideas, who celebrated learning."

Credibility matters. Yes, McCain sounded like a limited-government conservative during his last weeks on the campaign trail. But his party's record doesn't live up to that. Just mouthing words is insufficient or, in fact, worse than insufficient. Hearing Bush and McCain talk about limiting government is like listening to a prostitute give a lecture on abstinence.

The Republican Left (think Arnold Schwarzenegger) will now argue that Republicans need to become even more like Democrats by abandoning ideology and getting together to cut deals. This means giving up principled resistance to notions of limiting government and is the blueprint for permanent minority status.

Unfortunately, the Republican Right will argue that the party needs to more stridently embrace its version of conservatism -- with its emphasis on cultural issues, militarism, law and order as well as some good things (deregulation, low taxes). The latter are the folks who think the GOP erred by not running enough Jeremiah Wright ads. Heaven help us.

"The civil war among conservatives will be between an enraged rump of die-hard knotheads and a disparate group of reformers," argues conservative writer Rod Dreher. "The knotheads believe that Obama's victory came thanks to the treason of some conservative intellectual elites and McCain's failure to be more like Reagan, whatever that means 20 years after the Gipper left the White House. Sarah Palin is the standard-bearer for the talk-radio faction within knotheadism, and Mitt Romney will emerge as the GOP establishment's last stand."

Think about that as a scary choice, the Palin Knotheads vs. the Romney Establishmentarians.

Instead, Republicans need to return to their small-government roots. This includes a rethinking of the party's embrace of the National Security State and of the neoconservative international prerogatives that probably had something to do with Nov. 4's losses.

As Antiwar.com's Justin Raimondo put it:

"Saddled with the neocons' war and the central theme of the McCain campaign -- 'victory' in Iraq and intervention around the world -- Republicans all across the nation have been dragged down to defeat."

Will the party ever learn that spending hundreds of billions of dollars policing the globe also is a form of big government?

There is good news. "Republicans are a natural minority party," Orange County (Calif.) Taxpayers Association President Reed Royalty told me. "They are good at fighting stuff. California Republicans' performance in the budget battle is a good example."

Well, the GOP will have plenty of practice fighting the Democrats in Washington. From that might grow a resurgent limited-government conservatism.

Steven Greenhut is a columnist for the Orange County (Calif.) Register.

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