by Lowman S. Henry | June 23, 2008

What the GOP must do to get its ‘groove’ back

The Republican Party in Pennsylvania is in meltdown. Voters are abandoning the party in droves, and new registrants are opting for the Democratic Party by a two-to-one margin. In recent months, the former Republican bastions of Bucks, Montgomery, Center, and Dauphin counties have all gone “blue” as the GOP has been driven into minority status in each.

The question now is: what can be done to halt the slide?

To answer that question, it is important to first understand what went wrong. Simply put, the GOP has abandoned its core principles at the exact same time as the Democratic Party has begun appealing to the higher virtues of its own. Voters are constantly being reminded of what the Democrats stand for, while Republicans watch in dismay as all too many elected officials and party leaders trample party orthodoxy.

There is no doubt that the core principles of the Republican Party present a roadmap to electoral success. Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism, belief in a free market economy, less government and a strong national defense ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity for the GOP. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich captured those same principles in his Contract With America and lead Republicans to power in Congress for the first time in decades.

In recent years, Republicans became too comfortable with that power and fell under the seductive influence of special interests and their own personal ambitions. Way too many Republicans serving in elected office turned into exactly what they had campaigned against. The Republican Party turned into an incumbent party. In the process, it lost grassroots voter support.

So, what can be done now to reverse the trend? First there must be the realization that it will take some time. The GOP did not get into this position overnight, nor can it climb out of it in the time frame of one election cycle. Current trends are a freight train speeding down the tracks. It is not possible to jump on the tracks and shout “halt.”

That having been said, here are some strategies for building a resurgent party:

  • Get back to the core principles of the Republican Party: The Republican Party and its elected officials need to stress a return to the basic GOP principles of limited government, lower taxes, personal responsibility, and political reform. Republican elected officials, especially in Pennsylvania, have made themselves virtually indistinguishable from their Democratic colleagues on areas such as spending, WAMS, earmarks, entitlements, and meaningful reform.
  • Demand accountability:  Elected officials who fail to live up to the principles of the party should be called on the carpet by party leaders for their transgressions. State GOP leaders hastened the decline of the party by backing, rather than chastising the legislators who supported the infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise.
  • End the endorsement process:  This is a remnant from the old days of political machines. Endorsements are designed to allow a selected few party bosses pick the party’s candidate rather than the voters. In many counties lobbyists and special interests manipulate this process by electing committee people loyal to them who then vote to endorse their hand-picked candidates.  This stifles competition and shuts many good candidates out of the process.
  • Get the committees back to doing what they were intended to do: By ending the endorsement process party resources can be spent on party-building activities (such as voter registration, committee person training) and on competing more effectively against Democrats in the General Election.
  • Give new blood a chance: As with government, party service should be term limited. In many cases the same names and faces have been around for 20 years or more. The time has come to welcome new activists and to allow a new generation of leaders to come to the fore.
  • Listen to your base: Conservatives are not a group to be reached out to, they are your party. The GOP cannot and (and is not) successful when it abandons conservative principles. Remember what Ronald Reagan said: “A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency, or simply to swell its numbers.”

These steps would, in many cases, be a radical departure from business as usual for many Republican Party committees. However, the old ways of doing business no longer work. It is about time the GOP begins to believe it itself again by returning to its core principles and by running its own house in accordance with those beliefs.