Newt Gingrich created a stir in April when he warned of a third party in 2012. “If the Republicans can’t break out of being the right-wing party of big government, then I think you would see a third-party movement in 2012,” he said. Eight months later, that dreadful prospect seems real.
We got here because governing became all about power and not about Republican principles, leading to out-of-control government spending, deficits, earmarks and finally bailouts during the George W. Bush administration. It also became all about “winning elections,” not about advancing the conservative agenda.
It began in 2004 when the Republican Party backed incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania Senate primary. It was followed by millions of dollars of Republican Party money flowing to Lincoln Chafee in 2006; tens of millions of dollars more to elect the moderates’ poster boy John McCain in 2008; and most recently $900,000 to keep afloat Dede Scozzafava in New York’s 23rd Congressional District last month.
This left the Republican Party with a tattered image: a weak and indecisive party ready to sell out its principles to gain power. It also led to electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008. Only 20 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll in October, the lowest figure in that survey since 1983. And 73 percent of Republican voters believe their leaders in Washington are out of touch with the party base, according to a separate survey in Rasmussen. “They betrayed our trust,” say many former Republicans.
But this is not because conservatism is unpopular. On the contrary, conservatism is “the dominant ideological group” in 2009, at 40 percent according to Gallup, outnumbering moderates for the first time since 2004 and twice the number who claim to be liberal.
Much of the growth in self-identified conservatives is among independents, 35 percent now compared with 29 percent in 2008.
This opened the door for the “tea party” movement. We are seeing one of the rare truly spontaneous grass-roots movements in our nation’s history. It is overwhelmingly conservative and has a much higher favorable rating than the Republican Party.
But even more ominous, according to a December Rasmussen survey, if the tea party movement were actually a third party, its candidates would be more popular than Republicans, by 23 percent to 18 percent. But Democrats would win with 36 percent. Another Rasmussen poll, taken in November, reported a similar dynamic. In a hypothetical race between Mitt Romney and President Obama would be tied at 44 percent, but if Lou Dobbs was added to the race, it would be Mr. Romney 34 percent, Mr. Obama 42 percent and Mr. Dobbs 14 percent.
Now, if one would listen to all the liberal pundits and Democrat activists, what the Republican Party needs to do is “reach out” to moderates, accept diversity of opinion and not “threaten retribution on Republicans for voting their conscience,” as Christie Todd Whitman puts it. Thus, their prescription is to “keep the Republicans where we got them” - mired in a series of electoral defeats. If this poison pill was to be swallowed whole, a conservative third party is likely to emerge, guaranteeing Mr. Obama’s re-election. In the meantime, Mr. Obama may be able to get some of the Republican congressional votes he needs to remake America in his socialist image.
Of all political parties in American history, the Republican Party has been the one that was willing to stand on principle - and as a result, win elections. The Republican Party turned aside Stephen Douglas in favor of Abraham Lincoln, because it believed that slavery was inherently evil. Ronald Reagan was nominated and elected after declaring that “a political party is not a fraternal order. A party is something where people are bound together by a shared philosophy.”
And this again is the hope of the American people for the Republican Party. In a November 2008 Gallup poll, 37 percent of Americans, 59 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of independents wanted the Republican Party to become more conservative. And support for conservatives certainly has grown in the past year.
All Republicans have been heartened by the overwhelming, often unanimous, opposition of Republican members of Congress to Mr. Obama’s march to socialism. Further, we are all encouraged by the recent public opinion trends against Mr. Obama’s policies, although there is nothing inevitable and irreversible about a trend. And for the members of the Republican National Committee, we were given that privilege so that we might lead.
So what is missing? It is not rhetoric, because no one really doubts that we are good at claiming to be conservatives. However, saying “just trust me, again” will not earn us that renewed trust.
What is missing is acting as if conservatism actually matters.
It should matter when we govern. It should matter when the Republican Party conducts its affairs. And it should matter when candidates want our money. We are being held accountable by the American people regarding whether our deeds meet our words and we must likewise hold our candidates and officeholders accountable. Nothing short of that will be enough.
• Jim Bopp Jr., an elections-law attorney in Indiana and member of the Republican National Committee (the party’s governing body), is the founder of the only separate organizations within the RNC in its history: the Republican National Conservative Caucus and Conservative Steering Committee, originally established to elect a conservative RNC chairman.