November 10, 2006

November 10, 2006 | Commentary on

A defeat for the GOP but not conservatism

Tuesday's election results, though undoubtedly humiliating to partisan Republicans, did nothing to repudiate the core principles of modern conservatism. In fact, most conservatives view the shift in power on Capitol Hill as a golden opportunity to reassert the timeless conservative principles that so many Republicans seem to have forgotten: limited government, low taxes, a judicial branch that strictly interprets the Constitution, and a strong national defense.

At its core, America continues to be an essentially conservative nation. Leave it to Bill Clinton to have captured this dynamic best. "The reason we are at this moment," he said in a campaign speech last week, "is that [Republican leaders] do not represent faithfully the Republicans and the more conservative independents in the country." He stretched reality a little, but not by much, when he argued that anyone who takes the conservative view on the budget, law enforcement and other issues ought to cast his or her lot with the Democrats.

And quite a few did. In every competitive Senate election save Rhode Island's, the Democrat won the votes of substantially more self-identified conservatives than the Republican did of liberals. One-fifth of all conservative voters in Pennsylvania, for example, voted for Democrat Bob Casey. Ohio's senator-elect, Sherrod Brown, who voted the conservative position only 8 percent of the time during his 14 years in the House (according to the American Conservative Union's scorecard), nevertheless won the votes of 23 percent of Ohio's conservatives. But even the support of all self-identified conservatives in those states would not have been enough to pull Sens. Rick Santorum and Mike DeWine over the finish line. Significantly, in at least three of the closest races - in Missouri, Montana and Virginia - the net cost of losing these conservatives was greater than the Republican margin of defeat.

Republican strategists, and more than a few Democrats, will undoubtedly take note of how easily legions of conservative voters switched their partisan loyalties, and will scrutinize the data for clues as to how this could have happened.

First, they will look at the incoming class of freshman Democrats and note that it bears little ideological resemblance to the next House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and her incoming cast of old-left chairmen. Nowhere, they will realize, are those differences more apparent than with respect to questions relating to limited government.

Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, for example, campaigned as a pro-gun, pro-life conservative who pledged not to ever raise our taxes. Former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler of Tennessee similarly campaigned as a conservative who cherishes property rights, decries the "alarming" increase in government spending and believes that "all life is sacred."

Virginia Senate candidate James Webb, should he maintain his slim lead over Republican Sen. George Allen and enter the Senate, is a former secretary of the Navy who served under President Ronald Reagan and resigned in protest - because the Gipper's defense budget was too small. Montana Senate candidate Jon Tester, who may also have to survive a recount, benefited from his campaign pledge to shun all spending "earmarks."

Little wonder that one election-eve poll found that Americans trusted Democrats over Republicans to control spending by a remarkable 53 percent to 29 percent.

Some will look at the heavy losses incurred by Republican moderates in the Northeast and argue that the GOP must move to the middle. This may be good advice, but not if Northeastern Republicans want to win back the hearts and minds of conservative voters. As in the contested Senate races, exit poll data demonstrate that self-identified conservatives who supported the Democratic House candidates made up fully 6 percent of the electorate, while liberals who gravitated to the Republican amounted to only 1.7 percent of the total. That means the "my-conservatives-for-your-liberals" trade netted a loss of 4.3 percent of the total electorate. For moderate Republicans in the Northeast, this was an avoidable disaster.

Their return to the minority status should ease the pain Republicans will undoubtedly feel as they make the transition from a power-centric to a principles-based form of governance. After all, it is far easier for the senior minority member of a House committee to take the pledge against earmarks, other forms of excessive spending and the perks of power than the all-powerful chairman or other members of the majority, who control the distribution of federal largess.

The best advice to my Republican friends on the Hill: Be not afraid to stand firm for an agenda of limited government, low taxes and a strong national defense. The American people will be strongly behind you.

To my friends in the Democratic Party, I say: You must appreciate how significant it is to have a new and attractive class of recruits who hail from the center-right. They have connected with the American people for legitimate reasons that warrant your respect and intense scrutiny.

And let's all be civil.

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in the Baltimore Sun