Outgoing RNC chair Ken Mehlman waxed valedictory tonight in a speech to Republican governors. He told the audience, at least one of whom has presidential ambitions for 2008, that the GOP abandoned the core principles that once had voters trusting them to clean up Washington DC:
The sting of Republican electoral defeats still fresh, the GOP chairman suggested Thursday the party has strayed and challenged it to refocus on core principles and reform.
“We work for the people,” Ken Mehlman, the outgoing chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a speech to a meeting of GOP governors. He reminded the crowd that “good policy makes good politics — and, for Republicans, this must be a time for self-examination when it comes to our policy.” …
“Our nation is stronger and better when Republicans are the party running the government. But, ladies and gentleman, our party should never be the party of government, of Washington, of earmarks, of bureaucracy,” Mehlman said, implying that’s what the GOP had become at times — or at least what voters perceived on Nov. 7.
Mehlman captures a large part of the problem in this speech. When the Republicans took power from the Democrats, it happened in the midst of scandal and profligate spending. Newt Gingrich carried the banner of Ronald Reagan and his belief that government causes more problems than it solves and re-energized Reagan’s vision of Western conservatism, forged earlier by Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley. Their message, that a growing federal government constituted a threat to liberty and fiscal solvency, resonated with voters.
So what happened? Shortly after an ill-advised showdown with Bill Clinton over the budget shut down the federal government, the movement appeared to lose steam. Instead of reforming Congress, the Republicans adapted themselves to the same mechanisms for retaining power that Democrats had used, and in some cases “improved” them. Gingrich left, and the leadership that followed did nothing to continue the small-government philosophy to which voters responded so well.
In fact, the Republicans tried to out-Democrat the Democrats in suddenly perceiving government as the solution to all of their pet policy issues. They grew the Department of Education by leaps and bounds rather than abolish it, as the GOP had long demanded. They expanded government in every category in an explosion of both entitlement and discretionary spending that started as soon as they took the White House. Republicans who once rightly decried the use of pork as a corrupting influence turned it into an art form, shamelessly adding thousands of line items to bills in an attempt to keep the Party going as long as possible.
Mehlman privately foresaw the result of the binging before the midterms even arrived, and predicted the hangover that followed. Now he has a message for Republicans who want to reverse their defeat this month: get back to basics. The GOP once stood for individual liberty, limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a strong national defense. They have to find their way back to those First Principles, transferring power away from Washington DC and giving it back to the people.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, that takes a special kind of leadership. Otherwise, the power begins to resemble the One Ring from Lord of the Rings — something so precious that politicians cannot bear to part with it.