Rebuilding the RI GOP Part I: Forming a Political Philosophy
I think an important distinction needs to be made in this discussion about re-invigorating the Rhode Island Republican Party by “defining conservatism.’ The attempt to excise the social aspects from the holistic definition of conservatism–essentially smaller government and traditional morality–indicates that it’s not conservatism that is being defined so much as Rhode Island Republicanism. The strong on defense, small-government, low taxes, but mum-on-morality positioning sounds similar to Giuliani-style Republicanism to me. This is probably a pragmatic approach for a Northeastern state’s Republican party to take, but let’s not treat social conservatism as some sort of pariah.
Social conservatives realize that they can only be a part of the coalition that makes up the RIGOP. However, they also deserve to be treated with respect. Statements by RIGOP “moderates”–as when Sen. Chafee called them “radical right wingers”–don’t help matters. Justin has explained–much more eloquently than I could–that socially conservative beliefs are sincerely held and are “above” politics. Nonetheless, in the political sphere, moderates and libertarians within the RI GOP can expect social conservatives to compromise to achieve certain political goals. But “Compromise Avenue” isn’t a one-way street.
I think that Justin has correctly delineated the three groups that will make up the future RI GOP: conservatives, libertarians and moderates. Now, I have a pretty good idea where the average conservative is going to stand on most issues (small government, low taxes, traditional morality). I also think I have a good handle on what the average libertarian believes (small government, low taxes and “stay out of my bedroom”). I can’t say the same about moderates. For now, I’ll take my cue from Senator Chafee, a self-described moderate Republican, who stated yesterday that a he “care[d] about fiscal responsibility, environmental stewardship, aversion to foreign entanglements, personal liberties. This is the Republican Party that I represent.”
It’s obvious that there is some common ground to be found and I think that we can agree with the fiscal/small government policy that Jon Scott outlined:
1. I believe in low taxes
2. I believe in small government
3. I believe in a strong national defense (to include secure borders).
I agree that these can form the central pillar on which the RI GOP should try to rebuild. Yet, these are only goals: there is still disagreement on how to achieve them. For instance, I believe that most conservatives and libertarians would prioritize tax cuts, while most moderates prefer budget balancing before tax-cutting. I don’t think it’s a major stumbling block, though, and a coherent fiscal policy could be established that would be germane to future RIGOP candidates for both state and national offices.
Foreign policy questions are usually reserved for candidates for national offices. (This year was different: until now, I hadn’t realized that the Governor had so much to do with the Iraq War). Standing for a strong national defense seems to be a no-brainer, but there is some difference of opinion just amongst conservatives as to what that means. Stay at home more–�essentially a defensive posture–or project power (ie; get them over there before they come here)? And what to make of the moderate position staked out by Senator Chafee that we should have an “aversion to foreign entanglements�” It sounds very Founding Father-ish, but I think that even many moderates would agree that this is not a practical approach in today’s troubling world.
I don’t think that there is much disagreement over the concept of strengthening our borders, but there are differing viewpoints over how to address the fundamental reason for why we need to do so, namely illegal immigration.
Senator Chafee mentioned environmental stewardship and this is an area in which the GOP, both nationally and at the state level, has allowed their political opponents to negatively define them. In our jam-packed state, fighting for open space, keeping the bay clean by improving city sewage systems, etc. are worthwhile and popular causes to embrace. Addressing environmental concerns go directly to quality of life issues and even have an economic development component. A sound environmental policy can explain how the RI GOP is just as “green” as most Rhode Islanders. It’s our water and air, too.
These are all part of an overriding philosophy of government that the RI GOP should then tailor to our specific political environment. That doesn’t mean sacrificing principles, but it does mean recognizing which issues should be emphasized. And the one issue that overrides all other is the business-as-usual approach in State Government.
Corruption is part of the problem, but lack of accountability and legislating behind closed doors (ie; open-government issues) are also viable areas for the RI GOP to address. It hasn’t been for a lack of trying, though. Rhode Islanders seem to recognize that something is wrong with their state government, but they continue to enable the same Democrat leaders who perpetuate the problem by re-electing their own particular Democrat to the legislature. As it has been observed before, most Rhode Islanders simply think “my guy is OK” and it’s the “other guys” who are the bad actors. Changing that attitude is the job that the RI GOP needs to undertake before it will ever make meaningful political progress in this state.
Trying to determine what it means to be a Rhode Island Republican is a worthwhile exercise. But unless the RI GOP can find attractive candidates to espouse these viable alternatives, the policy prescriptions concocted by us armchair philosophers and policy-wonks will be all for naught. Finding a coherent RIGOP philosophy is but one part of the problem. And it’s the easy part. The RIGOP must realize that a party built for longevity is built from the bottom up, not the top down. The tough part will be finding and funding the right folks to run against the Democrat monopoly across the entire political spectrum. But more on that later.