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April 18, 2014

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POLITICAL MEMO:

For GOP, principles aren’t enough

Party must show how its tenets can be applied to solve big problems

Nevada Republicans looking for any sliver of light at the end of that black tunnel could be encouraged last week by two developments, or at least a development and a half.

The first was Sen. John Ensign saying he’ll get engaged in the state party and try to rebuild it.

He’s clearly taking a page from his Senate colleague Majority Leader Harry Reid, who witnessed the carnage of the 2004 election and decided he was sick of losing. Reid sent one of his best deputies, Rebecca Lamb, to begin the rebuilding process. They made incremental gains in 2006, got the early presidential caucus, and then blew the doors off in the recent election.

Whether Ensign has the same fundraising prowess, eye for talent and political acumen as Reid is an open question, but desperate state Republicans are happy help is on the way.

The second positive development, or half development, was an “emergency appeal” fundraising letter the state party sent out:

“First. No excuses. No spin. No ‘lipstick on a pig.’ We lost. Big time. Nevada went ‘blue.’ ”

OK, that’s good. Time to face facts, right?

The problem, though, is that letter writer, state party Chairwoman Sue Lowden, can’t help herself and indulges in what many party regulars regard as a little self-delusion: “Yes, Republicans lost big in the elections this year. But it was due, in large part, to our failure to stick with our limited-government principles on taxes and spending.”

Not true. Opinion polls show unequivocally that Republican candidates got clobbered because the economy is in a tailspin, and very few voters think the economy is in trouble because of taxes and government spending.

And it’s worse than that really: Democrats have won the popular vote in four out of the past five presidential elections.

But what policy ideas should Republicans look to now? They certainly can’t abandon free-market principles. To do so would be the equivalent of Democrats selling out Social Security. (In 2005, when President Bush tried to privatize it, Democrats blocked him.)

No, Republicans must find new ways to apply free-market principles to emerging problems, or reexamine ways those principles can be applied to old problems.

So, for instance, here’s think-tanker Matthew Yglesias with a list of suggested policy prescriptions that bring the free market to transportation policy: “Why not allow developers to build as much or as little parking as they want to build when they launch a new development? Why not charge market rates for curbside parking on public streets? How about fewer restrictions on the permitted density of development? Why not reduce congestion on the most-trafficked roads through market pricing of access?”

To be sure, Yglesias is a liberal at the Center for American Progress, so you might suspect he has unclean motives giving advice to conservatives. But here’s a bona fide conservative, Ross Douthat, responding on the Web site of The Atlantic:

“On too many issues, conservatives have simply avoided the most important emerging debates, changing the subject whenever possible and leaving liberals to argue against liberals when it isn’t. This is true, too often, in transportation and infrastructure policy; it’s been true for some time in the climate change debate ... and it’s often true in education.”

Take note Republicans: The same was true of Democrats in the 1980s on key issues such as welfare and crime, until Bill Clinton got them in the game.

Douthat continues: “This problem is not, repeat not, a matter of conservatives needing to abandon their core convictions in order to win elections, as right-of-center reformers are often accused of doing. Rather, it’s a matter of conservatives needing to apply their core convictions to questions like ‘How do we mitigate the worst effects of climate change?’ and ‘How do we modernize our infrastructure?’ and ‘How do we encourage excellence and competition within our public school bureaucracy?’ instead of just letting liberals completely monopolize these debates, while the Right talks about porkbusting and not much else.”

In short, Republicans can start brainstorming, or they can keep losing elections. That’s the choice.

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