The two major political parties in Virginia are moving in opposite directions. Democrats are focused on organizing and moving forward, while Republicans are devoting most of their energy to petty infighting.
To make matters worse, Virginia Republicans have destroyed their brand by saying one thing to voters during election campaigns and doing another once elected. How could this have happened?
One explanation is that Republicans in office have lost touch with the voters. Another is that the Republican rank-and-file failed to hold their elected representatives accountable. These are not mutually exclusive causes. Both have been to blame for the current predicament of the Republicans.
The first step to recovery is to restore the Republican brand. Establishing an entirely new brand makes no sense. If Republicans are truly a party of principle, voters will not respond positively if Republicans declare that they have suddenly discovered new principles to replace their old ones. The old ones are perfectly sound if properly applied to new circumstances.
Virginia Republicans formally adopted a set of principles more than three decades ago. Those have served the GOP well and should be the foundation for rebuilding. They are:
• That the free enterprise system is the most productive supplier of human needs and economic justice,
• That all individuals are entitled to equal rights, justice, and opportunities and should assume their responsibilities as citizens in a free society,
• That fiscal responsibility and budgetary restraints must be exercised at all levels of government,
• That the Federal Government must preserve individual liberty by observing Constitutional limitations,
• That peace is best preserved through a strong national defense,
• That faith in God, as recognized by our Founding Fathers is essential to the moral fiber of the Nation.
From the mid ‘70s through the ‘90s in Virginia, Republicans had the advantage over Democrats in organizing, fundraising and message-delivery. A party in power generally tends to forget its grassroots and the importance of organization. That certainly occurred when Republicans controlled state government in the ‘90s.
The rank-and-file are partly to blame. They failed to focus on the Party’s principles and on the need to hold their elected representatives accountable.
Virginia Republicans must regain the confidence of the voters. They can no longer expect support by merely mouthing the principles they claim to uphold. They must prove their commitment to those principles, even when those principles seem out of favor.
Republican candidates have too often set aside or downplayed those principles when the news media, pollsters and consultants insisted they were unpopular. The distinctive Republican message has become so diluted and inconsistent that it is a wonder that Republicans continue to control the Virginia House of Delegates.
Republican support in 2004 for tax increases even larger than those proposed by the Democrats destroyed the GOP’s credibility as a party of limited government. The Republican-backed transportation legislation in 2007, with its unelected taxing authorities, abusive driver fees and unconstitutional impact fees, undermined the Party’s credibility as the protector of civil liberties. Swollen Republican state budgets and massive borrowing made GOP politicians appear to be indistinguishable from Democrats in terms of fiscal responsibility.
On social issues, Republicans have put themselves in the extraordinary position of being labeled extremists by the media, while simultaneously losing ground with grassroots conservatives because Republican elected officials shrink from using their power to enact or even support measures that would actually achieve their stated objectives. Perhaps the best example is the failure of Senate Republicans to force a vote in 2005 on a bill to ban government-funded abortions.
A majority of Virginians still favor limited government, fiscal responsibility and traditional family values. Unfortunately, the Republican message has become so watered-down that Democrats have been able to capture a portion of the traditional GOP base at the same time that some conservative voters simply stay at home during election campaigns or decline to vote at all.
Republican rebuilding in Virginia must start with a rededication to longstanding principles. No amount of money, new technology or improved databases will substitute for substance. Conservatives are not moved to action by promises of power or tribute. They want candidates who are different from Democrats and who are willing to fight for principle.
Instead of watering down Republican principles, GOP candidates should take those principles to minority voters who share Republican positions on traditional family values and the promise of the free enterprise system. That is the best formula for expanding the GOP base.
Republicans in Virginia have temporarily lost their way. They don’t need to blaze a new path. The one that brought them to power works just fine.