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Column: Why the Republican Party can’t surrender to its worst impulses

Following decades of moderate success as the political force uniting foreign policy hawks, free marketers and social conservatives, there’s little question the Republican Party is facing an identity crisis today. In recent years, its leaders failed to effectively advance U.S. foreign policy interests, got in bed with big rent-seeking corporations rather than protect free markets, and dropped the ball in the fight to strengthen families, neighborhoods, and local communities.

Voters have responded to the incompetence and betrayal of the party’s core values by nominating Donald Trump, a brash businessman who argues for strong borders and a tough but non-interventionist foreign policy. But Trump doesn’t represent a major philosophical shift in the party, so much as offer a warning from voters that they’re extremely displeased with the lack of progress being made in upholding long-standing principles about the importance of fighting wars prudently and decisively, restraining government overreach, and crafting economic policy that serves average workers as well as it serves the wealthy.

Rather than surrendering to its worst impulses, the Republican Party should continue to be a big tent for Americans who accept the reality of domestic and global threats to order and who are interested in orderly systems that enhance freedom.

A nation of laws, not men

First and foremost that means Constitutional order. Abraham Lincoln said the Constitution was a “frame of silver” around the “apple of gold” that is the Declaration of Independence. He meant that the Constitution exists to protect and preserve the idea that the authority of government derives from the people, and is limited by natural rights held by the people.

It’s a brilliant idea, poorly executed in recent years. Or as Frank Zappa put it, “The United States is a nation of laws, badly written and randomly enforced.”

That doesn’t just refer to how elites are given preferential treatment, be they Wall Street bankers, IRS officials who target political foes, or Hillary Clinton.

For decades now, the executive, judicial and legislative branches that are supposed to balance powers have failed to do their jobs, much less stay in their proper lanes. The effect has been a massive expansion of the administrative state.

That’s where Congress sets up huge executive agencies and then empowers them to write, enforce and judge regulations. The result is that federal bureaucrats operating at the discretion of the president now have enormous regulatory powers, and unlike Congress, they aren’t politically accountable. Or accountable at all — it’s nearly impossible to punish, let alone fire a federal bureaucrat, and it’s nearly impossible to reverse or modify their regulatory scheme.

This is how we get unconstitutional and unpopular federal regulations, such as the Health and Human Services mandate forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide and pay for birth control in violation of their religious liberty.

The Republican Party should represent those who oppose the administrative state and its corrosive effect on self-government and natural rights.

Recognize community ties

It should also represent those concerned about the social order.
American sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote in his Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary, “The essence of [conservatism] is the protection of the social order — family, neighborhood, local community, and region foremost — from the ravishments of the centralized political state.”

These intermediary institutions are bulwarks against state power, which is why they’ve come increasingly under attack from state and federal governments. The Republican Party should help Americans fight top-down educational programs such as Common Core, recent federal mandates to redefine sexual distinctions, and onerous federal drug laws. It should embrace prison and criminal justice reforms and in so doing help at-risk populations keep men in their families and contributing to the community.

Different states, counties and cities can come up with their own solutions to the problems of educating youth, family breakdown, and crime. The Republican Party should make a hard push for pluralism and maximum individual and social autonomy that protects social ties.

Defend the country and win the wars we fight

And, finally, the Republican Party should do a much better job advocating American military strength. The party can be counted on to argue for bigger military budgets, but budgets aren’t the main problem with foreign policy. Americans want to know that the costly wars we fight are necessary. If so, Americans want to win them and win them quickly. Military members and their families are a natural constituency for the Republican Party, but they’re sick of fighting wars that no one intends to win.

Americans know the threat of Islamist terrorism, even President Obama and his allies in the media. The country’s current posture has been mostly effective, but without sensible immigration and assimilation policies designed to protect self-government, the threat will grow.

The main problem with the Republican Party hasn’t been its professed ideas against government overreach, but its failure to effectively fight any of that government reach. Recent elections have seen increased margins of victories to deal with the mess of a bloated government that restricts personal freedom and societal virtues — but nowhere near enough actual dealing with the mess. And Republican leaders have been unable to articulate, much less market, limited government virtues, an unforgivable impotence in a hostile media environment.

Editor’s note: The PBS NewsHour is hosting a series of columns to run during both of the 2016 national political conventions.

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