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November 12, 2006
Return To First Principles

In the aftermath of the midterm election loss, which stripped power from Republicans in both chambers of Congress, supporters wondered what went wrong and how to recover from the blow. Why did voters reject the GOP after twelve years in power, and how do Republicans convince them to return to power in 2008? Mitch and I discussed this at length on our show yesterday, and we had all four inbound lines lit for almost the entire two hours.

One common thread among all of the calls was that the Republicans had forgotten why voters gave them a majority in the first place. The 1994 revolution brought a mandate for reform. Voters had tired of a Congress that passed laws that they refused to apply to themselves, of a federal government that kept growing, and a perception of the legislature as corrupted by a murky appropriations process and lobbyists ready to exploit it. They had their fill of Democratic leadership that considered power their birthright and the arrogance that springs from a lack of accountability.

For a while, Republicans acted on their mandate for change. In a dramatic session, Newt Gingrich forced through the changes in vote after vote minutes after gaining the gavel from Dick Gephardt. They tried to hold the line on spending, but made a political mistake in shutting down the federal government in an attempt to beat Bill Clinton. Until he left office, though, they kept spending under control and carried through procedural reforms intended on reducing corruption.

That changed under the Bush administration. Bush, who has always been less conservative than most of his critics understand, started to implement a vision of big-government Republicanism, ironically just a few years after his Democratic predecessor declared the death of big government. Discretionary spending rose in all categories, and even worse, Republicans adopted the same earmark routine that had locked Democrats into power for 40 years. Voters grew more and more disenchanted with the profligate former reformers, and with the pressure of a difficult war, they lost confidence in Republicans to lead, and elected Democrats instead -- and in some cases, rather conservative Democrats.

What lesson can we learn from this? Machiavelli pointed out that power corrupts centuries ago, but we can see a definite correlation in this example between the belief in big government and its corrosive influence. Once one starts building bureaucracies to run the lives of its citizens, it has to pull more and more money away from those citizens to fuel it. The money attracts special interests and lobbyists, which creates all sorts of opportunities for corruption, both petty and grand. Big government and the resources it requires fuels corruption, even apart from its drain on economies and the curtailing of personal freedoms and choice.

How do Republicans return to power, then? They need to return to the first principles of conservatism:

1. Limited federal government
2. Strong national defense
3. Support of private property and free markets

These principles have wide acceptance among conservatives of all stripes, and that's one of the points of identifying first principles. In order to enact our agenda and to fight the big-government solutions of liberals, we need to attract enough of a following to achieve a majority, especially in the House. The more we add to these principles and insist on achieving, the fewer people will feel at home in the big tent. Most policies will be informed by these three principles, and that which falls outside probably belongs in the purview of state legislatures.

This formula will win elections on a large scale. We know this because it won the 1994 midterms, and to some extent it won elections this year. Voters have already made their preference for limited government clear, as I wrote on October 30th. A CNN poll showed a majority of voters felt that government tries to do too much, and only a third of all voters think government should do more. It's no accident that Democrats actively recruited conservative-leaning candidates this year to regain their majorities.

If the Republicans want to regain that majority, they need to regroup around their first principles. Keeping the nation strong and reducing the power of the federal government's intrusion on private property and private lives is a message that will resonate in 2008 and beyond.

UPDATE: It was Lord Acton who provided the quote, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," as several CQ readers have pointed out. However, Machiavelli also said that total power corrupts, and he also gives a good explanation why well-structured democracies limit corruption.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 12, 2006 7:24 AM

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