TAUBE: Dole’s Republican reminiscence

Evoking Reagan won’t win the next election

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The Republican Party’s recent political struggles and electoral woes have led to an extensive period of self-evaluation. There has definitely been no shortage of criticism from various circles of interest about the party’s policies, ideas and future.

We can now add former Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas to the list.

During a recent interview with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Dole stated he doesn’t recognize the Republicans any longer. In his view, it “seems to be almost unreal that we can’t get together on a budget or legislation … we weren’t perfect by a long shot, but at least we got our work done.” He felt that his party should put up “a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘closed for repairs’ until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas.”

Mr. Dole took his criticism one giant step further. When Mr. Wallace asked if “people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan — could you make it in today’s Republican Party?” the 1996 GOP presidential candidate said, “I doubt it. Reagan wouldn’t have made it. Certainly, [Richard] Nixon couldn’t have made it, because he had ideas and … we might have made it, but I doubt it.”

Mr. Dole obviously isn’t the first person to have invoked Reagan’s name in discussions about the GOP. A counterargument can be made that conservatives like Reagan could still have been successful in today’s Republican Party because of their intelligent political ideas, strength of character and ability to balance fiscal and social issues. We don’t know the answer to this question, and there’s no point in engaging in fruitless speculation.

That’s not the reason why Mr. Dole bought up Reagan and Nixon during his interview, however. He’s just following the lead of former Republicans such as Bruce Bartlett and reform-minded conservatives such as David Frum, Ross Douthat and Yuval Levin. These individuals have critiqued the GOP for taking positions they either view as extreme, out of touch with modern thinking or politically unviable. In Mr. Dole’s case, he used two former colleagues — and successful ones at that — to argue that the Republicans have moved even further to the right of the political spectrum.

There’s no question that today’s GOP is different and is trying to find a new route to success. Still, Mr. Dole is ignoring the obvious: Voters change, ideas change and the political environment changes. While it’s important for the Republicans to maintain a historical link with successful conservative politicians such as Reagan and Barry Goldwater, the party also must develop a modern identity and adjust to issues when necessary.

The difficulty remains in developing a workable political agenda that would be acceptable to most members of the Republican Party’s big-tent philosophy. While I firmly believe that right-leaning Americans have more similarities than differences, there have been various clashes of personalities and ideologies in this political movement. That’s not about to end anytime soon, and it makes the task all the more difficult.

For now, the GOP’s best strategy is to emphasize fiscally conservative policies and support broad-based social conservative values.

Fiscal conservatism is the best selling point for the GOP to win back political support that has gradually been lost to the Democrats. Most Americans want to hear positive proposals that lower their taxes, reduce the overall size of government, increase private-sector involvement, enhance the free-market economy, and provide them with more individual rights and freedoms. While they don’t want to have their social services torn apart, they would accept the need to discuss or implement reforms to areas such as education, health care and welfare.

Social conservatism is a tougher nut to crack. While conservatives such as Reagan avoided lofty conversations on these topics, this strategy won’t work in today’s political environment. The key is to create a moderate social-conservative agenda on broad themes such as freedom of religion, protecting family values, promoting states’ rights on issues such as abortion and homosexual marriage, and opposing judicial activism. Some Americans (and conservatives) would be disappointed by this strategy, but the vast majority would appreciate this intellectual exercise and would likely be supportive.

The modern Republican Party is a work in progress. It is not, as Mr. Dole has directly implied, about to regress even further. By taking a positive, modern conservative approach and ignoring the nattering malcontents, the road back to electoral success could finally be within reach.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.

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