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How the Republicans Can Come Back

By Joe Scarborough, Time - May 10, 2009

You could forgive Republican leaders for rolling their eyes this past week as they read obituaries declaring the death of the GOP. After all, many Washington pundits had already declared the Republican Party dead following its defeats in 1964, 1974 and 1992. The Democratic Party was also written off after taking a beating in 2004, with Republicans and Democrats alike debating whether George W. Bush's re-election would usher in a permanent Republican majority.

If it did, the Era of Republican Supremacy lasted a total of two years.

With that as our historic backdrop, I suggest that political commentators sit back, take a deep breath and relax. The Republican Party will not be leaving the political arena anytime soon. Take a quick look at Senate races in three of the bluest of blue states: polls show that in Connecticut, New York and Illinois, Republican challengers are handily ahead of Democratic incumbents, despite the fact that President Barack Obama won those states last year by an average of 25%. If history is any guide, Republicans will also pick up House seats in 2010. (Read "GOP Senator Specter's Party Switch Gives Obama a 100-Day Gift.")

But those gains could be fleeting. There's no question that Republican leaders must rebuild their party's brand after a decade of disastrous rule. To do so they should follow the advice of their first President, Abraham Lincoln, who told a beleaguered Congress during the darkest days of the Civil War that it was time to think anew. (See "Obama's 100 Days: Behind-the-Scenes Photos.")

The first thing Republicans must do is move past the current definition of conservative. Let's face it. American conservatism is now associated with wasteful spending, military adventurism and ideological conformity. The GOP took a $155 billion surplus and turned it into a $1.5 trillion debt. George W. Bush and the Republican Congress also allowed federal spending to grow at its fastest clip since the Great Society, while adding a $7 trillion burden to a Medicare program already headed toward bankruptcy.

On the international stage, Bush dismissed Colin Powell's disciplined approach to foreign policy in favor of one that guaranteed the ending of tyranny for all mankind. By Bush's second term, the GOP's foreign policy objectives were so utopian that even Woodrow Wilson would have been aghast.

Perhaps most damaging to the Republican brand is the fact that GOP leaders have allowed themselves to be defined too easily as rigid ideologues, blindly faithful to an unyielding agenda. Because of that, Obama has been able to move America dangerously leftward while blaming Republicans for the partisan divide.

For the better part of 200 years, conservatives followed a different path. British statesman Edmund Burke was the movement's founder. A fierce critic of the French Revolution, Burke had contempt for rigid ideologues of all stripes and instead attached conservatism to restraint, custom and convention.

Burke's thinking can be summed up easily: Respect reality. Understand the age you're living in, and understand its facts. As William F. Buckley said more than two years before his death, "Conservatism implies a certain submission to reality." But the approach championed by Burke and Buckley is a far cry from the mind-set embraced by today's Republican Party.

If the GOP is to move toward victory, it must again find the middle of American political life and stop being seen the way liberals were viewed for a generation: as tone-deaf ideologues mixed with self-consumed radicals. Don't get me wrong. I do not believe that conservative leaders should seek out a mushy middle ground. Rather, they should boldly call for a new era of responsibility in the U.S.

Instead of building empires abroad, Republicans should aim to balance their books at home. We should not only fight to conserve tax dollars but also work as aggressively to defend the environment. As Reagan once said, conservatives are supposed to conserve.

We should erase the shabby standards of financial oversight that have weakened us all in the age of Bernie Madoff. Corporate bailouts need to end — but Republicans must be determined to never again adopt a laissez-faire approach to Wall Street. After Black Monday, the Asian crisis, Long-Term Capital Management's meltdown, the Internet bust, the Enron scandal, WorldCom's collapse and the subprime crisis, there is nothing conservative about turning a blind eye to reckless speculation and greed.

The time for restraint is upon us — at home, abroad, in our markets and toward our environment. If Republicans once again embrace first principles, they can revive what Russell Kirk called "the forgotten genius of conservatism."

But the time to think anew is now.

Scarborough, a former GOP Congressman, is the host of MSNBC's Morning Joe and ABC Radio's The Joe Scarborough Show. His book The Last Best Hope is out in June.

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