- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

(Part of our Reinventing Conservatism series)

In the wake of the Republican Party’s second consecutive electoral defeat, the question that seems to be everywhere is: “How do we reinvent conservatism?”

Most conservatives are willing to concede there is in fact a problem, but I’d simply suggest the question is itself misguided: We don’t need to reinvent conservatism; we need to return to it.

The past few months have given rise to a tug of war of sorts on this very matter. On one side, we have those who think the Republican tent is simply not large enough to house a viable political coalition. On the other side stand those who think the key to our future success lies in getting back to basics. I myself fall squarely in the latter camp.

In many ways, a political party is little more than a brand, and brands thrive or wither based on how consistently they deliver on what they promise. Can we make the honest argument that the majority of those who campaigned as conservatives have governed as such? No. The Republican brand is damaged goods because Republicans have damaged it. Unless and until we get back to the principle of saying what we mean and meaning what we say, that won’t change.

If we accept the premise that political parties are akin to brands, what steps do we take to rehabilitate our failing product?

First, it’s important for brands to, as John Deere’s tractor sales are declining, it doesn’t broaden its engineering by producing cars and airplanes. Instead, it focuses on producing better tractors.

Second, the necessity of having a clear philosophical mooring cannot be overstated. We must be insistent that with the candidates we support, the officials we appoint and the causes we fight for, there be a clear, overriding philosophy.

Third, we have to be willing to take risks. When Republican governors such as John Engler first took up welfare reform in the 1990s, they were widely disparaged. The American left and the media rose up to defend welfare as it stood, but the governors’ perseverance and the tangible, undeniable successes of their programs laid the foundation for the reforms that followed at the federal level.

Fourth, we would do well to remember that this nation was founded on the principles of federalism. There are lots of problems out there, but not all of them are the purview of the federal government. On an aircraft carrier, for example, everyone knows what they’re supposed to do. When a fire breaks out, the guys tasked with fighting the fire get to it, while the rest stay out of the way.

Our various governments today act in a way that can fairly be described as the antithesis of that aircraft carrier - much to our detriment. How can a local government function when half the time the feds take care of something and half the time they don’t? The answer is, it can’t.

Fifth, we can’t just be the party of “no.” While it’s important to argue against that with which we disagree, the American people will in the end respond to policies that make a tangible difference in their lives. Conservatives need to articulate meaningful alternatives to having the government take over a much, much larger sphere of our lives. On education, we must continue to push for school choice, one of the great civil rights issues of our time. On health care, we must fight for portable, flexible care - whether it be by expanding health savings accounts or in some other form. No matter the issue, we cannot accede to the notion that conservatives don’t have a solution.

Finally, the notion of being conservative applies to more than just financial assets, and on this too many conservatives have been absent from debates on the key environmental issues facing us today.

In doing so, they have ceded the political high ground to the left. I do think grandmother’s notion of leaving the world better than you found it, the biblical notion of stewardship, and even Teddy Roosevelt’s idea of conserving for future generations are of great appeal to the modern-day electorate - and if approached from the standpoint of private-property rights and conservative philosophy, it can be a win in growing the conservative mantle.

Each of us could produce our own list, but in the final analysis, it’s not conservatism that needs to be reinvented, but our commitment to it renewed.

Mark Sanford is the governor of South Carolina. He is a columnist for The Washington Times’ “Reinventing Conservatism” series.

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