“Voters are tired of buying a GOP package and finding a big-government liberal agenda inside.” —Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK)

In 675 words, Sen. Tom Coburn does a smack down on Bushian “compassionate conservatism” in this WSJ op-ed piece. Coburn’s concise choice of wording makes for a brief article that is so full of quotable commentary that the whole thing bears reading.

It seems that everyone nowadays is acknowledging that the GOP brand has been badly damaged. Coburn derides some of the proposed solutions as more or less putting makeup on a pig. “What we need is not new advertising, but truth in advertising.”

Coburn writes that “conservatives are conservatives because our policies promote deliverance from poverty rather than dependence on government.” The Oklahoma senator is also not afraid of mixing religion into his commentary, ostensibly because that was the vehicle for selling compassionate conservatism in the first place.

“Compassionate conservatism's … implicit claim that charity or compassion translates into a particular style of activist government involving massive spending increases and entitlement expansion – was its undoing. Common sense and the Scriptures show that true giving and compassion require sacrifice by the giver. This is why Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell his possessions, not his neighbor's possessions. Spending other people's money is not compassionate.”
Coburn’s proposed solutions are sure to evoke squeamishness among the ranks of congressional Republicans. Most of them probably can’t even imagine “[refusing] to accept any new spending whatsoever, including for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, until Congress does its job of eliminating wasteful spending.” Coburn’s office “has identified $300 billion in annual waste.”

Of course, one man’s waste is another man’s necessity. And congressional Republicans will say that they are afraid of being rejected by voters for such a tough spending stance. I guess they think that the outcome of the 2006 midterm elections and their current dismal prospects for this November are just peachy. Their real fear is being cut off from K-Street money.

The trade of small government principles for the goal of a governing majority has produced a Democrat-Lite party that the majority of voters have rejected. The majority is gone, and Coburn says there’s no chance of getting it back until the party behaves “like Republicans.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) sounds like a somewhat more cautious version of Coburn in this WSJ interview. He basically says that he’s having a lot of difficulty getting House Republicans to line up behind the small government banner.

After reading the interview, it’s easy to understand the frustration of commenter Joe Dantone, who writes (here), “Your article clearly makes the point that John Boehner is a good man, but not the right man. There is a visible need for leadership in the upper reaches of the party and Congressman Boehner is not a leader.”

Look, it took years for the GOP to get itself into its current mess. The party actively recruited non-conservatives in many districts for years. Now they are stuck with most of those people. The voters are doing the favor of rejecting some of them (in favor of conservative Democrats), but the party has a stand-by-your-man policy that makes it support incumbents regardless of how far they have strayed from Republican principles. This means that the party could end up being hitched up with some very un-conservative GOP senators and representatives for many years to come.

The quest for party ideological purity has had only marginal success in American politics. But the GOP has strayed so far from its core principles that the party no longer knows what it stands for. There is no general understanding of why the party exists other than simply not to be called Democrats. Why should voters trust such a party with their votes?

Rep. Boehner is correct when he says that hoping to win by waiting for Democrats to falter is a lousy strategy. He stresses that the GOP must “earn back the majority.” But that takes two things: a clear message from the top and a lot of work by the party at the ground level to elect real conservatives. I’m not sure that either of these things is presently happening.
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