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Time to water down the Republican tea

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On the one hand, Tuesday’s election results offer Republicans no silver lining. In addition to Mitt Romney’s loss, Republicans were creamed in too many gimme Senate elections. GOP candidates came up short because the party turned itself into a reflection of its most extreme elements, which oppose — to the death — any compromise.

Yet four Republican governors — including one net gain — were elected Tuesday, bringing to 30 the number of Republican-led states. Why? Because executives can’t afford ideological purity. They don’t look at "reasonable compromise," "common ground," "win-win" or "big tent" as anathema. They stand on principle when they ought to — as Scott Walker has done in Wisconsin — but usually understand the need to achieve reality-based results.

For the Republican Party faithful, turning things around will require exorcising our tendency over the past several years to divide the electorate and narrow party membership. Remember when there were Reagan Republicans and Reagan Democrats? Perhaps we could try out a new tag line: The new Republican Party - putting the best of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan to work for America.

Republican reformers will earn crossover appeal by developing ideas for fiscal discipline, right-sized government, entitlement reform and business friendliness. They should also show support for such values as personal accountability, meritocracy, equality of opportunity and national pride. Social policies will remain relevant, but party leaders must avoid prioritizing highly divisive issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. Instead, Republicans should stress more mainstream policies that promote and preserve intact families, in-wedlock births and school choice. These are conservative sentiments, to be sure, but ones with rock-solid support across different demographic groups.

And while new Republicans will oppose unelected judges making social policy, the party must acknowledge the body politic’s right to choose whether it wants to consider marriage as a union of only one man and one woman, or otherwise. Public opinion is obviously evolving, and Republicans are just going to have to get comfortable with evolution.

Economics, of course, was the dominant issue cited by voters. New Republicans will not let government grow out of control. Only reluctantly — and much more reluctantly than Democrats — would we take people’s money away from them. While the no-new-taxes pledge must be dropped as a litmus test, the GOP should make clear that it will not allow spending, taxing or regulating that fails the stringent cost-benefit analysis Ronald Reagan brought to Washington.

Despite maintaining a strong presumption against expanding the federal government, new Republicans should stop demonizing government per se and, rather, draw on the legacies of Lincoln and Eisenhower to support a new "American System" of investment in national infrastructure. Inhibiting unreasonable growth of government and insisting on efficient government will be the Republican bulwarks.

Immigration policy was a killer on Tuesday. This is a tough issue; good center-right conservatives understandably cannot get completely comfortable with the notion of mainstreaming "illegals." But Republicans must make a habit of deferring to reality, and the reality is that the millions of undocumented workers and families in the United States are not going away. On immigration, like gay marriage, the fates will lead the willing and drag the unwilling.

On foreign policy, new Republicans should be able to agree with the other side to continue U.S. military and "soft power" dominance without committing to global overreach. While Republicans will always be quicker than Democrats to affirm U.S. ideals and exceptionalism around the world, we will be patriots, not idiots. Eschewing unilateralism is often in U.S. interests.

Party intellectuals will need to think about how to make social safety nets financially sustainable and more consistent with individual and institutional accountability. Republican entitlement reform will be designed to avoid inducing dependency or undermining a healthy work ethic.

And we cannot ignore income inequality. The left has too easy a case today that something corrosive is going on. The answer may lie in exalting the concept of community. When Reagan portrayed America as a "shining city on a hill," he was invoking John Winthrop’s moral vision of "always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body." Reagan explained that his ideal was "people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and... the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here." There could not be a better new Republican message.

This manifesto for reformation should resonate with well over half the country. And we should have plenty of boosters for this approach. Beyond the obvious "A-Team" of Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Rob Portman and Marco Rubio, moderate conservatives including Condi Rice and Jon Huntsman should be welcomed warmly and Colin Powell recruited back into the fold. Bringing over new leaders, such as the new senator from Texas and tea party favorite Ted Cruz, would help set the stage for reality-based Republicanism.

It’s clear that drinking too much tea has left us jittery. Some lower-octane ideological purity has to be part of a new Republican movement.


The writer served as associate White House counsel in the Reagan administration, general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget and of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the George H.W. Bush administration, and vice chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in the George W. Bush administration.


— Special to The Washington Post


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