When Colin Powell endorsed Barrack Obama, Rush Limbaugh had a convenient explanation, shouted into the microphone: “It was all about race.” Of course, the whole point of a program like Rush's is to provide his listeners with sound bites so that they won't have to think; thinking is hard and it is simply more efficient to farm the task out to people like Limbaugh. It's a division of labor sort of thing. But others proposed another explanation, namely that Powell was a Republican In Name Only (RINO) and so his endorsement was hardly a surprise.
The RINO argument, though more coherent, breaks down in the face of the slew of defections from the entire spectrum of the Republican Party. Christopher Buckley, Ken Adelman, Christopher Hitchens, Scott McClellan, Bill Ruckelshaus, William Weld, Lilibet Hagel (wife of Senator Chuck Hagel), Jeffrey Hart, C.C. Goldwater, and a host of other life-long Republicans have switched sides, calling the RINO argument into question. Even Bruce Bartlett has called for conservatives to “reach out to Obama.”
Only part of the problem can be laid at the feet of the McCain-Palin ticket. True, McCain continues the Cheney-Bush policies of replacing taxes with borrowing, expanding the federal government and especially the powers of the executive (the so-called “unitary executive” theory), foreign adventurism, and a slew of other policies that cannot be reconciled with the traditional Republican stance. Even on social issues, McCain is unreliable. As Tom Piatak points out in Chonicles Magazine:
Even on abortion, McCain is unreliable. On February 3, The Washington Post reported McCain's statement that 'it's not the social issues [that] I care about.' And on August 19, 1999, McCain told The San Francisco Chronicle, '[C]ertainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade which would then force X number of women in America to undergo illegal and dangerous operations.' I the same interview, McCain stated he would not have a 'litmus test' for judicial nominees. McCain's former senate colleague, Rick Santorum, an indefatigable champion of the unborn, has stated that McCain did his best behind the scenes to prevent pro-life legislation from coming to a vote on the floor. Robert Novak has reported that McCain has described Justice Samuel Alito as 'too conservative.' Novak has also reminded his readers that, back when Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords became an independent and began to caucus with the Democrats, McCain was in negotiations with the Senate Democrats to do the same thing. There is also McCain's support for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR), which cannot be squared with principled belief in the pro-life cause. Indeed, McCain has recently launched an ad touting his support for more federal funding of stem-cell research, and his campaign spokesman, Brian Rogers, has stated that the ad, which does not distinguish between ESCR and other types of stem-cell research, is intended to reiterate McCain's support for ESCR.
If the problem is not that the defectors are RINO, nor entirely with ambiguous nature of McCain's policies and campaign, what is the problem? Let me suggest that the Republican Party itself that is Republican in Name Only. The Party long ago abandoned its core principles. The problem began early in the Reagan administration, when the tax cuts did not lead to a smaller government; indeed, Reagan merely substituted borrowing for taxing. But borrowing is taxing; it is merely a tax shifted from the current generation onto the next; it is taxing our children for benefits that we enjoy, a kind of inter-generational theft that is counter to everything a pro-family party ought to do.
The government did not shrink under Reagan, and under Bush “(even excluding post-9/11 “homeland security spending) [domestic spending] has grown faster than during the previous two decades of divided government, and the incidence of pork-barrel projects has reached an all time high,” according to Christopher DeMuth of The American Enterprise Institute.
In abandoning its conservative principles, the Republican Party did not really become more Liberal. What it has become is more Corporate. That is, the Party has become captive of Corporate America, and it is run more and more for their convenience and profit, a profit they do not share with the rest of the nation, and are, indeed, even unwilling to pay for. As James Galbraith points out, the political world has become...
...divided into two groups. There are those who praise the free market because to do so gives cover to themselves and their friends in raiding the public trough. These people call themselves “conservatives,” and one of the truly galling things for real conservatives is that they have both usurped the label and spoiled the reputation of the real thing.
At this point we can ask, “What does the Republican Party need to do to change, to recover its principles?” And the answer is clear: It needs to lose, and to lose big-time. A marginal loss won't be enough to force a self-examination. Only a clear and crushing defeat will allow the Party to begin the process of recovering the Party's principles. Alas, it often happens that only pain leads to self-examination, and only confession leads to healing. If the Republican Party is really to become an alternative to Democratic statism, rather than just a substitute for it, it needs time out of power to re-focus on principles and practical responses to real problems, qualities which have been in short supply for the Party for the last 20 years.
The first thing the Party needs to do is to send the former Trotskyites who call themselves “neocons” back to the liberal darkness from whence they came. The next thing the Party needs is to convert the anti-abortion movement into a true “Pro-life, Pro-Family” movement (See “Pro-Life or Just Anti-Abortion?”).
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I am adding my name to the list of defectors. To the chagrin of many of my conservative, Catholic friends, I am voting—have already voted—for Barrack Obama. Since in the current crises, the Republican Party has little to offer the country, voting for Obama can do little harm, and may do much good. At least he seems to recognize a point that has escaped the Republicans, namely that our economic problems require the healing of the “real” economy, the economy of making things. In this, he can do no worse and may do much better. Indeed, conservatism should be more concerned with the real economy than the merely financial one, and currently the Republicans don't seem to know the difference.
But I am also voting Democrat for the good of the Republican Party. Unless it loses—and loses big—it will not change. And if it doesn't change, conservatives will have no real home in American politics.