Bill Bolling was right — once upon a time, he was considered to be the conservative darling of Virginia Republicans.
Yet after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, the disastrous play for a convention by Ken Cuccinelli in 2013 (which now in the wake of the 2016 primary, turns out to have been more about advantage than principle), and the kind words for McAuliffe over Cuccinelli during the 2013 gubernatorial contest? Bolling perhaps doesn’t feel as if he owes any apologies… rather, that his fall from grace was anything but a fall, but the canary giving its last gasp in a tapped out coal mine:
I am a conservative. I believe in a conservative approach to governing, but I am not anti-government. I understand that there is an appropriate role for government to play in our society, and that the absence of effective government could quickly result in chaos.
To be an effective political force, and an effective governing force, a political party must offer a positive agenda that attracts support and gives people hope for the future. A party that offers an agenda of gloom and doom and communicates its principles through anger and division will quickly become unsuccessful and ineffective.
This is, unfortunately, the condition in which we find the modern Republican Party. The question is, can the Republican Party survive if it continues moving in this direction?
The answer — or rather, the endgame — is best read in the demise of the old Whig Party in 1854, whose sclerosis seems to embody everything Bolling sees wrong with the GOP today: a lethal combination of division linked with a lack of a positive vision. Bolling continues:
When the Whig Party collapsed, most of its effective leaders quit politics or changed parties, including one of our nation’s greatest future leaders — Abraham Lincoln, who quit politics for a while following the collapse of the Whigs.
Does this sound familiar? Does it sound similar to the challenges being faced by today’s Republican Party? I sure think it does, and this history should be instructive to modern Republicans.
Truth be told, there are a fair number of conservatives who would agree with Bolling’s bloody assessment of the Republican Party as it stands today. Too many good people are abandoning the Republican Party — especially in Virginia — because the loudest voices have determined themselves to be popular based on decibel levels, not on governing principles.
Bolling’s principle culprit is division within the party, which he views as a fatal weakness. Yet that very same “division” also has a better word when operating towards the positive: coalition.
In 1994, conservatives — tired of losing to liberals while watching a post-Cold War populist regiment flake off in the post-Reagan era — forged a coalition with disparate groups. Fiscal conservatives linked arms with social conservatives and national security hawks under the 1994 Contract With America.
Back then, Republicans knew what we were for, and we fought for things — not against them. It worked. Republicans achieved welfare reform, spurred the greatest economic boom in American history, froze the Clinton White House for six years, and propelled George W. Bush into the presidency. If not for 9/11 and the impact of the security state, who knows what might have been accomplished?
The difference between then and now? We have one faction — precisely one faction — that views the Republican Party as a path to their own personal achievement.
They aren’t easily identifiable. They have no issues with which to quickly identify them; no allegiances that last. They are swift to arrive and leave a trail of gossip and lost activists before moving on to higher position. Most of all, they advance rather hungrily… promoting others only insofar as it promotes themselves, but always promotion, promotion, promotion.
In 1993, Virginia Republicans pulled off the impossible when we elected George Allen as governor. In 1997, Jim Gilmore followed, and in 2000 we elected Allen for U.S. Senate in what had to be the last great hurrah of the Republican Party. Back then, it was process and doing things differently from the old Byrd Machine era. Yet apart from one aberration in 2009, it has been a long slide into bickering, infighting, power plays, and perhaps worst of all a rise of personality cults over principle…
Sometimes those personality cults masqueraded as principle. Conventions over primaries comes to mind… and while I firmly believe that conventions earn us the most conservative candidate that can win and believe strongly in them, too many pretended to be on that side only to gain office and abandon principle when convenient. One can lock out a thief, but you can’t lock out a liar…
…and yet more often than not, these personalities have split and torn a once-effective powerhouse into the sclerotic and divided Whigs we have become today, pitting our factions against one another by threats or praise, and maybe a little bit of cash here and there.
If you want to know what’s wrong with the Republican Party today? It’s because we no longer put people in front of personalities. Real, good, honest, hard working people, mind you — not the pretenders. We forgot process in favor of power grabs. We treated our grassroots as malleable scum while others laughed themselves to sleep on the hard work, patriotism and cash donations of others. We ignored the small business community while patronizing the racket of community organizing. We slashed the mainstream media while pretending that social media could cheat ourselves to activism. We patronized the kitchen table but preferred the cloth tables at the Commonwealth Club instead. Collectively, folks sold out — perhaps because the political left simply believes more in what they believe more than we believe in what we believe — but sold out all the same.
You wanna know why we’re getting our butts kicked? Because we deserve it.
When we quit deserving the punishment, then maybe Republicans will be trusted with the tools of governance once again. When we quit lying to the base about what is practical and possible, then maybe we’ll deserve to govern again. When the base quits selling out to liars and thieves who would sell principle and snake oil just the same, then maybe we’ll get the generational change back to an America we once knew and understood. Maybe when we figure out that we really can work together like we did in 1994 and build a better future, the public will trust us to lead once again.
For one, I see the ideological diversity within our Republican Party as a tremendous strength. I’m sure Bolling sees its merits as well. The vision and path forward requires an electorate willing to accept certain truths about how we are going to arrive at Conservatopia — or whatever we believe an ideal government should be.
Perhaps when we reach realistic expectations about what to expect from the Leviathan (and that’s not much), then maybe we won’t be so concerned about the Leviathan’s saddlers. Until then, the path to Reagan’s shining city on a hill — for the moment — will remain corrupted by the self-serving and few. At least, until we realize that we surround them, rediscover a spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of public service, and become a bit more willing to work in coalitions with others to get there.
Find those people? Let those voices dominate the public discourse? We stop losing quick… and we start winning again.