In small meetings at the homes of conservative activists and bigger gatherings at research groups, in conference calls and on blogs, and at gatherings like the Republican governors’ conference that just ended in Miami, the questions have been the same.
Nearly 30 years after president Ronald Reagan ushered in a period of conservative ascendancy in US politics, how should the movement re-energize itself? And how can conservatives chart a path back to power after this month’s Republican defeats?
Some conservatives want a return to basics, arguing that President George W. Bush abandoned conservative principles by expanding government and driving up spending. Others draw just the opposite conclusion, warning that Republicans have tried to appeal to too narrow a base and that the party must update the focus of conservatism, especially at a time when voters are thinking more about issues like jobs and healthcare than about abortion and gay rights.
The debate has been simmering among veteran conservative leaders, a younger crop of conservative writers and thinkers who want to modernize the movement, and the Republican officials vying to become forces in a party that suddenly has no leader now that the Bush administration is at an end.
“Everybody’s discouraged and disillusioned, but also energized,” said Richard Viguerie, a conservative direct-mail pioneer who wants conservatives to stop supporting a party that he says has betrayed them, and to start forming grassroots groups instead.
Lee Edwards, a historian of the conservative movement at the Heritage Foundation, said that in meetings with conservative leaders since the election a consensus had emerged that the Republicans had been hurt by drifting away from conservative principles, and that religious conservatives, economic conservatives and strong-defense conservatives had seemed to realize the need to unite to regain power.
“It isn’t a question of stressing economic issues or stressing social issues,” Edwards said. “What we have to do is to go back to what Ronald Reagan did and put together a coalition.”
Other Republicans are not so sure. They point to the party’s losses this month — which spanned the entire Northeast and West Coast, the Great Lakes states, several Western states and traditionally Republican states like Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana — and said that the party urgently needed to broaden its appeal.
John Weaver, who was the original chief strategist of Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign before he left during an upheaval in July last year, warned that given the demographic changes sweeping the country, the Republicans could no longer afford to be seen as what he called an “angry white men’s party.”
He strongly questioned the premise that Republicans lost this year because they were not conservative enough.
“We still are a center-right country, but the gauge is closer to the center than it is to the far right,” Weaver said. “And we have got to communicate to the people who ultimately decide these elections.”
The chairman of the Florida Republican Party, James Greer, one of several likely candidates to lead the national party, called for putting less emphasis on some social issues and more on economic issues that he said could have broader appeal.
“I think we need to answer the questions that are asked by the conservatives: ‘Is it still my party for family values? Is it still my party for faith?’” Greer said. “Answer those questions, answer them firmly, ‘Yes it is.’ But then move on. And start talking about the issues that are important to Americans: the economy, job opportunity and education.”