- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

The Republican Party is in danger of losing voters if it continues embracing the big-government conservatism practiced by President Bush and the Republican-led Congress, Ryan Sager argues in “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

Mr. Sager, 27, is a weekly columnist and blogger for the New York Post and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.com. He is a 2001 graduate of George Washington University.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Mr. Sager:

Question: How did you come up with the title?

Answer: The Republican Party has to make a choice about whether it’s going to keep going in the destructive direction it has been going or step back from the brink. Essentially, the elephant in the room is big-government conservatism and particularly President Bush’s form of it.

Q: What’s the problem with the Republican Party embracing big-government conservatism?

A: Despite the fact that social and Christian conservatives are often the more vocal in the political arena, a large part of the conservative base really is here because of small government. They are concerned with fiscal conservatism, social tolerance and government leaving them alone to lead their lives. By departing from that vision of the party, you’re leaving these voters no reason to turn out on Election Day. One danger is they don’t vote at all. Another danger is that they vote for the opposition. Democrats throughout the West are trying to find a message that can resonate with these voters. … Given Bush’s performance and that of the GOP Congress, for instance, it is not difficult to paint Democrats as the party of fiscal conservatism.

Q: What are the ideals versus the practices of the Republican Party?

A: The ideal for the Republican Party would be to stick to an idea called fusionism, where both social conservatives and small-government conservatives, or libertarians, support keeping the government small and the economy unburdened and our social fabric strong. During Bush’s administration, what we have seen is a wholesale abandonment of the fusionist bargain. We have slipped into big-government conservatism, with things like the No Child Left Behind Act instead of school choice and the Medicare prescription-drug bill instead of free-market health care reform. We’ve had costly highway and farm bills instead of controlled spending. We’ve surrendered on campaign finance reform, which really is the most atrocious infringement on free speech since the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Q: Will the Republican Party’s notion that it can become a “permanent majority” lead to its collapse?

A: The way the Republican Party is going about becoming a majority party is inextricable from abandoning the principles that made it a majority in the first place. … Becoming a permanent majority requires the abandonment of small government and the alienation of libertarians, who have always made up a crucial component of the conservative coalition, going back to Barry Goldwater and then on through Ronald Reagan and, of course, Newt Gingrich.

Q: Why are the ties unraveling between the social conservatives in the South and the small-government conservatives in the West?

A: When you look at the South and the West, the Republican Party has always had to balance a certain tension between these two regions. Southern conservatives have long been concerned with tradition, faith and morality, whereas the Western wing has been more concerned with freedom, privacy and independence. What you see is that the GOP has to try to balance these two wings. More and more, especially during the Bush presidency, we’ve seen more of a tilt toward the Southern wing … alienating the other wing.

Q: How does the voting public view the Republican Party and, in particular, the decisions made by President Bush while in office?

A: The public has seen Bush as a decisive leader and as being very committed to winning the war on terror. His character and perceived strength as a leader carried him through the 2004 election. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the public began to lose confidence in his competence. … Some of those concerns about his competence have now come to color the public’s view of how he has handled the war in Iraq.

Q: How does the Republican Party engage in big spending versus the Democratic Party, and who really is spending more?

A: Part of the problem is the question of united versus divided government. Having the Congress and the presidency in one party’s hands has proven, now in the current administration and in the past, a formula for out-of-control spending. With united government, there is no check and balance.

Q: What should the Republican Party do to keep its voters?

A: What the party should do is take a step back from big-government conservatism. It should try to concentrate on issues where social conservatives and libertarians can find common ground. … They should realize the South is solidly enough in their control at this point and that they can move toward a more socially tolerant position and a more fiscally responsible one that will shore up the party’s Western wing.

Q: Why did you write this book? What message are you trying to get across?

A: I wrote the book because I was worried that voters concerned about small government, concerned about liberty and concerned about the Constitution may no longer have a home in the next two to four years. The fusionist bargain has been a good one for libertarians, and it would be a disaster for those voters — and eventually the Republican Party — to see that crumble and the GOP become the antithesis of what the conservative movement has worked so hard for 50 years to create.

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