The Third Way

There is another way forward for the Republican Party


In the wake of Clubber Lang's vicious defeat of Philadelphia's favorite son in Rocky III, the Italian Stallion reflected back on why he lost. It seemed he had everything going for him—but then he got caught up in his own glory. When Rocky finally hit bottom, his former nemesis, Apollo Creed, dramatically stepped in to offer some stock speech wisdom: "When we fought, you had that eye of the tiger, man, the edge! And now you gotta get it back, and the way to get it back is go back to the beginning."

Today's Republicans are in similar spot. After Barack Obama's massive win, they've been reviewing the fight tapes, only to discover that getting caught up in the glow of their own power eventually led to their downfall. They should've gotten the message in 2006, but this November's spectacular defeat (save Ted "Marion Barry" Stevens) has finally woken them up. Now the question is: What direction will the Republican Party take? Will the GOP "return" to some dogma of the past? Reaganomics would appease many in the Old Party "old guard" who think like Apollo Creed. Or will the party invoke Teddy Roosevelt's progressivism and shift more to the political center? These are the two options currently being debated by pundits on all sides, but the fact is that either option would spell doom for Republicans.

Consider David Brooks' most recent column in the New York Times, where he outlines what he sees as the GOP dividing into two warring camps now that they've been thoroughly defeated. It's the Traditionalists versus the Reformers. Reagan versus Teddy. Old Party power versus moderate centrism. But in reading Brooks' analysis, one is left wondering if there isn't another direction the GOP could head in order to return to power.

Brooks defines the "Traditionalists" as those who believe "the G.O.P. should return to its core ideas: Cut government, cut taxes, restrict immigration. Rally behind Sarah Palin." He puts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Grover Norquist, and organizations such as the Federalist Society and Family Research Council into this camp.

Palin, Limbaugh, and Hannity truly do belong in the same wing of the GOP, the branch that has rejected intellectualism in favor of dogma, the group that believes passionate devotion to the "real America" will energize a Nietzschian-like will to power. Unfortunately, Brooks identifies this group as the defenders of the free market. That's not a reassuring thought for those who favor both free markets and free minds.

The second group Brooks sees the GOP splintering into is the "Reformers." This group tends to believe that "American voters will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government. Reformers propose new policies to address inequality and middle-class economic anxiety. They tend to take global warming seriously. They tend to be intrigued by the way David Cameron has modernized the British Conservative Party."

Brooks puts authors David Frum (Comeback), Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (Grand New Party), Ramesh Ponnuru, and Peggy Noonan into this group—as well as himself, proving that his neocon spine has cat-like flexibility. These Republicans believe in John McCain's mission to take the party towards the center with the rest of the country—though most were critical of his methods during the campaign.

Given the Brooks analysis, here's the real problem for the Republicans: The Traditionalist defenders of capitalism wind up out of touch with America and grounded in rhetoric rather than political principle. Meanwhile, Reformers who want to "appeal more to Hispanics, independents and younger voters" have to abandon the small government model and become the conservative wing of the Democratic Party.

None of that spells long term success for Republicans. What the GOP needs are libertarians, those who believe not only in small government, but also in individualism and the truly liberating power of free markets. If the Ron Paul movement tells us anything, it's that the Republican Party can be more than a party of old white guys with bad hair cuts.

Brooks believes that the Traditionalist will win in the short term—led in 2012 by Sarah Palin—but that Reformers will win out in the end as the GOP continues to lose. He argues that once the GOP suffers more defeats, the Reformers "will build new institutions, new structures and new ideas, and the cycle of conservative ascendance will begin again."

Again, it's doubtful that Brooks' vision of a reformed, moderate Republican Party will be able to differentiate itself from a lukewarm Democratic Party. But even if they were to rise to power, it wouldn't be the small government, Goldwater-style GOP of old. It would simply be a new kind of party.

What does this mean for the future of free market economics? Perhaps today's libertarians will learn first hand the pain of Hayek, Friedman, Mises, and the rest at Mont Pelerin who had to confront a world that adversely opposed their ideas.

But perhaps not.

A new conservative movement that takes libertarian ideas seriously could use the inertia created by the nation's new progressivism to slingshot itself into the future on a platform of reduced government, lower taxes, and limited interventionism, while also respecting climate change (adjusting the tax code to encourage green reform without any expense to taxpayers) and reforming the immigration system (opening the borders as the market demands labor without sacrificing security).

The Republican Party has a chance to transform itself into something it has never been: a party of small government based on classical liberal principles. It doesn't have to be one of David Brooks' visions of the GOP. In fact, if the Republican Party wants to return to power it will recognize the flaws in both approaches, avoid them like Road Runner toying with Wile E. Coyote, and embrace libertarianism instead.

Anthony Randazzo is a research associate at the Reason Foundation.