The way forward


altOver on the Spectator's CoffeeHouse blog yesterday, James Forsyth approvingly quoted from this column by New York Times' columnist David Brooks. But I think Brooks is only half-right.

He is certainly correct that the US Republicans are in trouble, and that they are not currently acting in a way that would enable them to win back Congress in the 2010 mid-terms, let alone the White House in 2012. But I think he is wrong in his prescriptions about what the Republicans should do about it.

Let me elaborate.

First of all, yes, the Republicans are not doing what they should be doing. There are a number of inter-connected issues here. The first is that the Republican brand is fundamentally broken – their party is now associated with incompetence (Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, etc), corruption (Tom DeLay, Scooter Libby, etc), and the complete betrayal of their principles (Bush's was the biggest spending government since Lyndon Johnson's). This is a brand that desperately needs to be re-invigorated, not reinforced.

The second point is that the Republicans are not going to rediscover electoral success solely by energizing their base: the US electorate has changed, and the Republicans need to tailor their message accordingly. Voters are increasingly youthful (new voters are heavily Democrat), or members of ethnic minorities (who also lean Democrat). Obsessing about social 'wedge' issues (like gay marriage) just isn't going to swing these voters.

The third point is that the Republicans can't redefine themselves solely in negative terms by being against whatever Obama does (however heinous it might seem) – they need a positive agenda of their own.

So far then, I'm with Brooks. But I think he goes awry when he argues that the Republicans need to give up on "freedom and maximum individual choice" and instead embrace "community and civic order". The truth is that Americans are no less individualist and entrepreneurial then they were a decade ago. It isn't the Republicans' principles that need to go. They just need to find a new way of communicating.

If you're sceptical, just compare Barry Goldwater (who lost 44 states) with Ronald Reagan (who won 49). It wasn't the principles that changed; it was the presentation. And ultimately, that's the challenge for all of us: showing why small government and individual liberty are still the way forward (and not just the way back).