The Right Opinion

Federalism Could be the Solution to GOP Branding Problem

By Jonah Goldberg · Dec. 14, 2012

To understand why Republicans have a “branding problem,” you first need to understand how the system is rigged against conservatives.

Such is the schizophrenic dysfunction of our politics: We constantly demand “conviction” politicians who will “do what's right” and then condemn them, often in the same breath, for being unwilling to put aside their conviction and their sense of what's right.

But such condemnation does not fall equally on conservatives and progressives alike. For the progressive's principle is, at its core, more. Do more. Spend more. Spend more doing more. Any compromise of progressive principle in this regard is seen as “pragmatic.” Hence, the progressive's heart is always in the right place.

The conservative, however, who says the federal government is not the right tool to fix the problem at hand, or that it is not Washington's job to fix said problem, or that such a problem is itself not fixable and taking money from taxpayers to try is despotic folly: This conservative's heart is never in the right place.

In other words, the progressive wins entirely on the principled question of direction. The conservative (or libertarian) loses entirely on principle but gets concessions on how fast we'll go in the wrong direction. The progressive says, “Let's move to Mars.” The conservative says, “Earth is fine.” They compromise by moving to the moon. And, before the first lunar dawn, the progressives start agitating about how Mars would be so much better.

When the classical liberal philosopher Friedrich Hayek famously said that he couldn't call himself a conservative because “It has … invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing,” he had this dynamic in mind, and you can see it on full display as progressives respond to the unfolding disaster of ObamaCare by arguing for a single-payer system.

This gets to the heart of why the Republican “brand” is in such terrible shape. Over the 20th century, progressives erected a system and culture where the government in Washington is the agency of first and last resort for all of our problems. When government is expected to say yes to everything, electing the Party of No makes as much sense as hiring a priest to run a brothel.

So what is the answer? Many conservatives argue that what the GOP needs to do is start saying “Yes” to things. This was the idea behind George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism. Americans want an activist government, so conservatives should find things they can be activist about, too. If the government is going to meddle, it might as well meddle in conservative ways.

While individual policies may be advisable, as a general proposition I think this is the wrong way to go. Not only does this do violence to the constitutional order conservatives are supposed to conserve, it forever puts the right in a bidding war with the left about what government can and should do. Conservatives will lose that fight – and possibly their souls in the process.

What's the alternative? Well, if the game is rigged against you, continuing to play the game is the very definition of idiocy. You have to change the rules.

My own view is that conservatives should recommit themselves to federalism and states' rights. The Party of Lincoln should protect core civil rights, but beyond that, states and localities should be given as much freedom as they can handle. If California wants to become Sweden with better weather, let it. If Texas wants to become Singapore on the Rio Grande, great, go for it. And the same principle goes for cities and towns within those states.

Of course, conservatives already say they believe in federalism, but they rarely demonstrate it save when convenient. Which brings me back to the question of fidelity to principle. In principle, Republicans should look at the monumental clutter in Washington like a boat with too much ballast to stay afloat: When in doubt, throw it overboard.

In practice, Republicans should be more strategic and discriminating. That means taking positions that are right on policy, but also, when possible, highlighting issues that run counter to the (unfair) caricature of Republicans as prudish moneybags. Personally, I'd start with federal marijuana laws. The tide has turned on pot, and states are going to keep legalizing it. Why should Washington stand in their way? The beauty of federalism is that you don't have to condone legalization in one state or prohibition in another. It's just not Washington's fight.

This can't happen overnight, but the system didn't get rigged overnight either.

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


HP in Kalispell, MT said:


Great article as usual. Where do we start...

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 11:36 AM

Tex Horn in Texas said:

Why do Republicans have no brand? I lay it right at the feet of the Republican establishment. Conservative Americans have sent numerous "Tea Party" types to Washington in an effort to rebrand Republicans as true conservatives, only to have the establishment there (Boehner, McConnell, Cornyn, etc.) refuse to give them any power positions or as happened recently, take positions of power from them. The result? A splintered party, a weakened party. The current Republican establishment is not inclusive when it comes to true conservatives, but have become Democrat-lite. While I would like to see us go over the fiscal cliff (everyone takes a hit), I presume that the Republican establishment will fold and give Obama most of what he wants, and the fiscal problems killing America will remain unsolved.

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 11:57 AM

Patrick in Houston replied:

Yes, and when disaster befalls us, the Republicans will be blamed by the Democrats, the MSM, and the voters will stupidly fall for it again.

Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 3:51 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

The Republican party that produced a Reagan is no more. They have stood by and let Odumbo do things no President has ever done. Appointing czars, using executive orders to bypass Congress, interfering in the private sector, using EPA regulations to punish businesses, etc. The RINO'S have sat on their collective assses and let him get away with all these things. It's time to disband the Republican party and start a new Constitutional party that uses the Constitution and the rule of law as its standard. The RINO''s have allowed the lamestream media to label them as the party of "NO" and composed of "angry old white men" without fighting back at all. Just rolled over and allowed it to happen. I'm changing my registration to independent before the next election because the RINO's don't stand a chance if things continue as they are today.

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 1:13 PM

Joe in Texas said:

Sounds good, but tougher in execution. Liberals want power centralized. They don't want selected power in blue states. They want their programs for ALL not some. That's what would make it fair. Tax everyone, for the sake of everyone.

This experiment would crash and burn. Look at it now. Red states are better off financially with employment rates, low taxation compared to blue states. Liberals know that this is glaringly obvious and the migration proves it. To stop it, they put all control in DC.

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 1:26 PM

Rod in USA said:

Great... right up to the part about smoking dope. While I agree with states rights, I am anti-drug. In a society where handouts are lavish and readily available, with legalized pot we would be outnumbered by the 47% who think I should work my arse off to fund their dope habit. They would have no incentive to work. So I think we have to have a different sequence of events.

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 1:45 PM

Gregory in Yakima Wa. said:

To explain: I came to this and other sites of a similar nature to learn the underlying generation of your ideas. I wanted to discover the think tank for ultra-conservative politics.

Since last January I have been a devil's advocate, a skeptical inquirer. The purpose and hope was to write my own column with insights lacking in other writers essays.

To my disappointment there is no such intellectual locus. I discovered the generation of over the top dissent is nothing more than the result of hatred, rage and frustration. This site is far more about unexamined beliefs and finding scape goats than formulating theory on problems and reasonable solutions.

You've been cut adrift by those who once hoped to gain from your dark enthusiasm and I too will leave you to your pointless fulminations, rants and screeds.

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 2:21 PM

Joe in Texas replied:

Does this mean you're leaving us, dear Gregory?!


And before you think that our side is full of pointless fulminations, rants and screeds, you assume that your side is full of ideas and angels. Well, your president calls us enemies and to vote against us for revenge. It starts with him.

You see the unions and occupiers violent protests. You see the racial politics that your side spews. You're the ones that don't want people to work. Your side advocates living off the gov't. No solutions? There you go...

Vote Democrat! It's easier than working!

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 2:37 PM

India in GA replied:

I hope you stick around, Gregory.

If not, take care.

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 7:52 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

Goodbye, Comrade Greg!

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 3:25 PM

Tex Horn in Texas said:

Gregory, dude, you're leaving us "kids" to our own playground? And under the presumption that you hold intellectual prowess that we don't have? Well, we're not surprised because that exactly what we expect from liberals...a better-than-you position, a greater-than-thou attitude. And this from people who think that intellectual giants like Charlie Rangel, Bill Ayers, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and the like have the "real" answers. This from liberals who can't see the freight train of ruin rushing at them, even though one look toward the socialist states in Europe and Latin America show how socialism has failed so miserably. Well, we kids like our positions because they're based on reality, not some pipe dream utopian scenario. Hey, bud, hope you wise up somewhere down the road to ruin.

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 4:58 PM

Trudy in alabama said:

Actually, O just said federal pot laws were not a big deal to disobey because some states' citizens have decided to legalize--so He is FOR states rights, right? Oh, sorry, he wants it both ways. Equality as long as it's more equal for me than for you.

Friday, December 14, 2012 at 5:03 PM

enemaofthestatistquo in Monroe, GA replied:

Smoke 'em if ya gots 'em 8*))

Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 12:10 AM

enemaofthestatistquo in Monroe, GA replied:

But, don't Bogart that joint my friends. Insist on seeds included.

Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 12:13 AM

enemaofthestatistquo in Monroe, GA replied:

Seeds for the coming barter society.

Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 12:15 AM