GOP needs to appeal beyond the base with real solutions

November 15, 2008 

Shortly after Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to garner more than 50 percent of the vote since the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, conservative activists were already diagnosing the Republican Party's problem.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said the GOP must return to conservative principles. "What has made the conservative movement strong is when you have social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and foreign policy conservatives working together," he said. "It's a return to fundamental conservative principles that Ronald Reagan showed work and that people can be attracted to," Perkins told CNN.

But as Reagan himself would say, "There you go again."

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter addressed an anxious nation. The troubled president tried unsuccessfully to convince Americans that the economic problems we faced were due to a "crisis of confidence." Carter's speech was the beginning of the end for his presidency and opened the door for the unabashed optimism of Ronald Reagan and his clarion call; "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"

Today, after losing in states that hadn't voted Democrat since Lyndon Johnson, many GOP leaders insist the only way to avoid spending the next 40 years wandering in the desert is to channel the next Ronald Reagan. However, a closer look shows America just had eight years of Reagan-esqe style governance and it drove them into the desert.

For the last eight years the same conservatism espoused by President Reagan has been the play book of President George Bush. Both presidents advocated socially conservative legislation and made significant marks on the judiciary. Both presidents advocated a conservative approach to foreign policy, anchoring the country's military expansion in the strong belief of American exceptionalism. And both presidents, after campaigning as fiscal conservatives, grew government spending to unsustainable levels.

In 1988, Reagan left office after increasing federal spending by 69 percent and growing the annual deficit to $212 billion after promising to balance the budget during his term. While using government spending to boost the economy, Reagan doubled the federal debt to $1.9 trillion.

In 2008, Bush leaves office after increasing federal spending by over 60 percent and growing the annual deficit to a record $482 billion after promising to balance the budget during his term. While using government spending to boost the economy, Bush doubled the federal debt to $11 trillion.

In President Carter's infamous crisis of confidence speech in 1979, he spoke about the same critical energy issues debated today. He proposed an end to America's dependence on foreign oil by calling for an aggressive plan to develop national alternative energy sources, caps on foreign oil imports and a new federal agency designed to expedite critical energy projects. However, Carter's message was too dour and 30 years too early.

Almost three decades later, Barack Obama used the same basic arguments and packaged a winning message on fixing a struggling economy and the importance of energy independence by usurping Reagan's legendary pathos and his optimistic, yes-we-can attitude. In short; Republicans were out-Reaganed.

Meanwhile, the profile of the American voter is transforming. Obama gained nearly 4.4 million more Catholic and Protestant voters over 2004, many of these helped him win in swing states. A new generation of religious voters refused to be distracted by the culture wars that have become the hallmark of the GOP's religious right.

And while voters have maintained conservative social beliefs (same-sex marriage bans passed in states where Obama won) they see a bigger picture not dictated by wedge issues as defined by the religious right. Surveys consistently showed the economy, health care, and an end to the war have become the most important issues for a majority of voters.

If the GOP leadership believes the solution is channeling Reagan and simply steering more to the right, they're wrong. It's time for the Grand Old Party to realize that its management of government has rendered the term conservative meaningless. It's time to appeal beyond the base with real solutions to the problems facing Americans instead of more red meat rhetoric.


Andrew Halcro is a former Republican legislator who ran for governor in 2006 as an Independent. He hosts a radio show on 650 KENI, and you can read his political blog at www.andrewhalcro.com.

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