Arlen Specter began the month of April insisting that it was important to keep the Democrats from achieving a 60-vote majority in the Senate. “The only check and balance on the Democratic sweep with the White House and the House is 41 of us in the Senate,” he told The American Spectator. “Because if [Pat] Toomey is the Republican nominee and my seat goes, the Democrats get 60 votes.” Specter ended the month by switching parties and paving the way for that 60th Democratic vote.

His hasty departure from the GOP is a good reminder that most arguments made by politicians are based on electoral self-interest. But the reaction to Specter’s flip also revealed the poverty of the debate among Republicans as to how they can start winning again. Some Republican-friendly commentators treated the Specter switch as an occasion to rebuke conservatives for their partisan disloyalty. Others took the opportunity to assure us that, whatever the election results may say, all is well with the Republican Party.

“The Specter defection is too severe a catastrophe to qualify as a ‘wake-up call,’” wrote David Frum. “His defection is the thing we needed the wake-up call to warn us against!” Other posters at his website complained of Republican purges. Commentary’s John Podhoretz, while allowing that Pennsylvania’s newest Democratic senator is a “snake of the highest order,” called the conservative campaign against Specter “the most self-destructive act in modern political history.”

Not to be outdone, the anti-Specter conservatives shouted good riddance. Sean Hannity told his viewers that Specter’s new party affiliation “makes no difference.” Rush Limbaugh cheekily advised Specter to take John McCain with him. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of the most active and respected conservative legislators on Capitol Hill, declared, “I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs.”

Obviously, there is a lot of ground between these two extremes. In politics, you often have to accept imperfect allies. But a political movement that aspires to something greater than holding power for power’s sake cannot subordinate all its goals to the whims of its least reliable allies. Understood properly, the loss of Specter at this moment is unfortunate because it further diminishes conservatives’ already severely limited leverage in Washington. A Specter-free Republican Party is not, however, a great tragedy for conservatism.

The Specter flap has also shown that the debate over the Republican future is largely taking place between two camps. One group says that Republicans should imitate the Democrats’ success by imitating Democratic positions, with the non-negotiable exceptions of raising the top marginal income tax rate and pulling out of Iraq. Do whatever needs to be done to keep Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chafee happily affiliated with the GOP so that we can hang on to enough seats to maybe block a Democratic-sponsored bill someday. Such bold strategic thinking.

On the other side of this debate is a group that in effect maintains that there is nothing wrong with the Republican Party that a 2012 Sarah Palin/Joe the Plumber ticket couldn’t fix. If George W. Bush and the Republican Congress hadn’t spent so much money, especially on those blasted earmarks, conservatives would still be in power. The way back to the Promised Land is to say what Bush said in 2004 even louder and to recruit candidates proficient in Beltway conservative think-tank white papers—especially in the blue states.

Pat Toomey is a smart man who capably represented a swing district in Pennsylvania for four terms. But he and many of the candidates supported by the Club for Growth when he was its president agree with the second assessment of the Republican Party’s fortunes. Arlen Specter is the dream candidate of those who prefer the first: an economic and social liberal who is only reliably Republican on issues pertaining to war and civil liberties. That Toomey is considered the underdog and Specter is reduced to desperation moves to keep a Senate seat he’s held for five terms should tell us something about these two approaches.

Fortunately, there is a third option. There is a flavor of conservatism that has not been discredited by the events of the past eight years. If anything, its criticisms of loose monetary policies, overconsumption, reckless private and public borrowing, uncontrolled immigration, and foreign adventurism now seem prescient. It is a conservatism unburdened by the Iraq War, the “heckuva job” response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial meltdown, which are really the biggest contributors to the GOP’s decline. Most of all, it is a conservatism that does not need to rehabilitate the Bush legacy since its leading exponents were never full-time Bush apologists.

An objection is likely to enter even the minds of sympathetic readers. This sounds a lot like paleoconservatism, whose adherents are too quirky, too cantankerous, and too small in number to put together an effective political movement. But we needn’t call it “paleo” anything. It’s the ideas that matter. Not so long ago a platform along these lines—limited government, decentralism, a national interest-based foreign policy, and resistance to multiculturalism—would have been considered conservatism without the prefix. And is it really that outlandish compared to the leading alternatives? Right now, Republicans are arguing about whether they want to remain the party that is in the minority now or go back to being the party that was in the minority for decades after the New Deal.

Moreover, a conservative political movement can be informed by certain paleo-friendly insights without reducing itself to a debating society on the relative merits of Bill Bennett versus Mel Bradford. Austrian economics has some things to say about the current financial crisis that mainstream economic theories, Left and Right, do not. Restrictionists have valuable observations about our immigration policy. And in today’s world, there is a great case to be made for a strong American military used sparingly.

Such a new old-fashioned conservatism agrees with the Limbaugh listeners that the Republican Party lost its way on spending without pretending that the Bridge to Nowhere was a bigger liability than Iraq. It agrees with the Frum followers that there are fundamental problems with the Republican brand without repudiating conservatism. Best of all, it addresses head-on the main reason for the recent GOP electoral debacles.

Republicans are in trouble because a majority of Americans view George W. Bush as a failed president. There is simply no other credible explanation for the party’s dramatic drop-off from 2004 to 2006. Worse, the strategies that helped Bush eke out narrow, short-term victories have hurt the Republican Party over the long term. Treating social conservatism as a form of identity politics was supposed to help the party win evangelical votes without alienating moderates. It has instead inflamed feelings between these groups. Amnesty for illegal immigrants was supposed to appeal to Hispanic voters. Instead it set up a debate that pitted them against the bulk of the Republican base. Tax cuts combined with spending increases were supposed to be all gain, no pain. Instead they discredited Republican economic arguments.

The GOP has angered its true believers by being unprincipled and has alienated nonideological voters by seeming hypocritical, tone-deaf, and incompetent. The trap the party has set for itself is that whatever addresses one problem only makes the other worse. A potential way out is to appeal to the center with style and the Right with substance. Ron Paul was able to win liberal esteem despite opposing abortion and holding views about government that made Barry Goldwater look like Nelson Rockefeller. Perhaps a more mainstream figure with greater credibility among Republicans could do better.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is a strong possibility, though he may be too conventional a Republican. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is another, though he might not be any more mainstream than Paul. Neither Sanford nor Johnson is personally charismatic. Any Republican who wishes to take up this mantle would have to study the Buchanan ’96 campaign. Pat Buchanan was able to connect with Limbaugh-listening conservatives on a visceral level in the 1990s. They overlooked his foreign-policy heterodoxy because he had been a Cold War stalwart and the Democrats were engaging in humanitarian interventions abroad. Besides, can a man who trades blows with Michael Kinsley every night really be soft on America’s enemies?

Every article like this one seems to suggest that the road to Republican victory can be paved by adopting the author’s political views. So let’s stipulate that a successful GOP candidacy along these lines would be more hawkish, more government-friendly, and less directly critical of Bush than I would prefer. The Federal Reserve and the personal income tax would survive the first 100 days. But a flinty, sober Republicanism, socially conservative but not preachy, pro-defense but not hyper-interventionist, could win in places where the GOP is losing, like New Hampshire and the Interior West.

A return to what the late Jack Kemp derided as “root-canal politics” is certainly risky, especially with Barack Obama promising a clean environment and affordable healthcare with no trade-offs or costs. Truth-telling conservatism could easily fall flat against a liberalism that tells voters only what they want to hear. It’s nevertheless a risk worth taking. Why? Because for the Republican Party, things can’t really get much worse. 

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator. 

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