The GOP at Risk: A Symposium on the Big Tent Strategy—John Engler

John Engler

governor of Michigan

It is naive (and contrary to Christian teaching) to believe that a political party without power is somehow more pure than a political party with power. Are not both comprised of men and women who are lower than the angels?

After beginning my political career in the Michigan House of Representatives, where Republicans at that time were in the minority, I came to realize that being in the minority did nothing to strengthen the principles of the party. Republicans who were (1) pro-life on abortion, (2) pro-choice on education, (3) for deeper tax cuts, (4) for smaller government, and (5) for policies that respect the integrity and sanctity of the traditional family found themselves stymied again and again by liberals who wouldn’t even let bills out of committee.

Then, for seven years I was senate majority leader of a caucus that held a 20-18 lead. With such a slim majority, one thinks carefully before pitching people overboard.

I reject the notion that being in the majority necessarily undermines the principles of the Republican Party. To stand by such an assertion is to misread American history, misunderstand the nature of political parties, and misconstrue our system of government. Conservatives from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk have recognized that politics is the art of the possible, the arena where interests, morals, and values clash in a struggle for dominance. The task is to manage these competing forces with prudence.

In American history, when the GOP has been in the majority, it has achieved its greatest successes.

Abraham Lincoln has been credited with preserving the Union and defeating slavery. Did he undermine Republican principles when, in his First Inaugural address, he pledged to respect Southern property rights so long as the South did not resort to violence?

Theodore Roosevelt has been credited with championing much-needed domestic change. Did he undermine Republican principles when, recognizing the need for humane reform, he adopted many of the muckrakers’ and conservationists’ ideas?

Ronald Reagan has been credited with defeating communism and launching an era of unprecedented peacetime prosperity. Did he undermine Republican principles when, to forge a winning coalition in 1980, he embraced Democratic union workers on the one hand and anti-anti-communist libertarians on the other?

What would have been the fate of the GOP had Lincoln or TR or Reagan narrowly defined what constituted a Republican? At best, permanent minority status—at worst, relegation to the dustbin of history. Either outcome would have spelled the end of the Republican Party as an effective force in the public arena and so resulted in a diminished America.

We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The accomplishments of the GOP-led 105th Congress include a balanced federal budget for the first time in thirty-three years, historic welfare reform, and a $500 per-child tax credit. In the laboratory of democracy called Michigan, Republicans in the ’90s have passed twenty-four tax cuts, downsized government, created greater school choice for parents, and helped cut the number of abortions by one-third. How did we accomplish these things? By cobbling together a majority coalition. I have found greater success working in the majority than in the minority—and I want to keep it that way.

Don’t think that the GOP could not marginalize itself out of existence. Whigs, Know-Nothings, Nullifiers, Anti- Masons, Greenbackers, Prohibitionists: All are parties out of America’s past—and all are thoroughly finished as a force in the public arena. They were led by people who knew how to articulate principle, but not to exercise power.

The great challenge is always to yoke the two—principle and power. As one of this century’s greatest Catholic thinkers, Jacques Maritain, used to put it: Belief is not enough. You must know how to act on your belief. You must know how to cooperate with others who do not march in lock step. Action in the public arena means that we may stain our hands, but not perforce our hearts. The lessons of American history suggest that our Republican Party is a better party, not worse, when it has the confidence to deliberate and govern as the majority party.

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