The GOP's Big Idea: Elect More Republicans!

At CPAC, Republican rising stars chased an agenda, and electoral victory.


Photo credit: Foter / CC BY

Judging by the speeches at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the Republican party's rising stars have decided that they should talk more about what principles their party stands for, and what policy ideas they favor, instead of just reiterating what they oppose.

"We've got to start talking about what we're for. And not what we're against," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "We can either make the choice to keep our head down and not rock the boat, to not stand for anything or we can stand for principle," proclaimed Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas). "We have to explain where we want to take the country, and how we want to get there," said Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.). Executed well, the payoff could be huge. "We are literally on the verge, if we make the right decisions, of a new American century," said Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.).

Yet even as the parade of GOP bright lights affirmed support for a positive vision backed by productive policy ideas, most seemed to struggle to define that vision, or talk clearly about what those ideas should be. The GOP has decided that it should probably stand for something—yet aside from electing more Republicans, it's still not sure what, exactly, that is.

The struggle to articulate a principled vision was most apparent in Gov. Chris Christie's speech. Christie currently serves as the head of the Republican Governor's Association, and his address was built around a contrast between productive Republican governors and ineffective Washington talkers. For him, action was the key. "Governors are about getting things done. Governors are about making government work," he said. "Governors have stood up and done things, not just talked about them," he reiterated a few minutes later.

But what would it mean for government to work well? And what should guide administrators as they seek to improve programs and systems? Christie briefly alluded to a handful of discrete initiatives in other states, as well as to a few of his own public sector reforms. But there was no obvious guiding principle to connect them aside from party affiliation. Above all, Christie was focused on Republican electoral victory. "We don't get to govern if we don't win," he said. Otherwise, his speech was a case for action for its own sake.

Like Christie, Sen. Ted Cruz also portrayed himself as an outsider fighting timid forces in Washington while looking for a way to win. In his telling, too many gutless Beltway insiders followed the "Washington way" of compromise and calculated triangulation. That way, he said, was a surefire path toward policy failure—and electoral defeat. "You want to lose elections," he said, "stand for nothing." Cruz provided a 10 point list to help explain what he stood for: repealing Obamacare, repealing Dodd-Frank, stopping presidential lawlessness, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, and ending corruption all made the cut. Cruz nodded to expansions of school choice and energy production, as well as defending the Constitution, but mostly it was a rundown of specific things he opposed. 

Strangely, Cruz also seemed to suggest that part of the party's problem was its insufficient criticism of President Obama's agenda. After highlighting the electoral failures of Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, he asked: "The Obama agenda has been horrible for people, yet how many Republicans said that?" Well, Romney, for one, whose speeches often accused President Obama of having "crushed the middle class." If there's anything that virtually the entire GOP has been clear about for the last five years, it's that they don't support President Obama's plans.

Sen. Marco Rubio's speech struck a less defiant note, focusing more on America's place in the world at what he vaguely described as "a critical moment in our country's history." Rubio offered a paean to America's global greatness and an argument for the benefits of American strength and military power, set against warnings of looming threats from abroad. But Rubio's vague call for "an American foreign policy deeply rooted in our values and principles" still made for an awfully murky national vision. It describes how Americans might like to think of their country, but not what America's diplomatic and military leaders might actually do.

These speeches did not propose any clear visions for the country so much as promise that some sort of vision was on the way, and that Republicans would figure it all out once elected. That promise of a forthcoming agenda was in part a reaction to widespread disappointment with Mitt Romney's rudderless 2012 presidential campaign. But how much progress has the party really made? Romney himself sounded many of the same notes in his 2012 speech to CPAC, declaring, rather like Christie, that "it's not enough to show how [Obama and Democrats] have failed. We must prove we deserve to lead." Like Cruz, he warned of politicians who promise change but "become creatures of Washington," falling under its spell. The CPAC of 2012 didn't take place at a critical moment for America, as Rubio said, but it was "a defining moment for our generation," one that required an assurance "that American remains the greatest military power on the face of the earth." Admittedly, it took until 2013, the year after he lost the election, for Romney to extol the virtues of capable Republican governors. But he got there eventually.

In his Thursday speech at the convention, Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, managed to sidestep this trap by acknowledging that the party's vision was still forming. Right now, he said, Republicans are engaged in an internal "battle of ideas." It's a battle he welcomes, because it leads to change—and, yes, to victory. "You fight it out. You figure out what works. You come together. Then you win."

Ryan's right about how policy ideas come to be accepted. But the real fight isn't happening at the party's center, amongst its boldfaced names. It's happening at the periphery, amongst activists and agitators, policy wonks and panelists, and those eschewing wonkier economic issues. And while there's no full-fledged vision to be found, there is a hint of an emerging consensus, especially amongst the young, in favor of greater personal liberty on certain issues—gay marriage, marijuana legalization, personal privacy, federal surveillance and spying.

Of the Republican party's rising stars, only one has made a serious attempt to reflect that impulse, at least in spirit, if not always in the particulars: Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.). His CPAC speech opened with a subtle counter to the partisan victory cheers of his fellow headline speakers, asking the audience to briefly imagine a future in which liberty is once again paramount in American politics. "You may think I'm talking about electing Republicans," he said. "I'm not. I'm talking about electing lovers of liberty." In other words, what Republicans need isn't a vision for the party, and ideas to run on. It's a vision for the country—and ideas to make it happen.