Jeff Flake has long been a voice in the Republican wilderness, opposing profligate spending and big-government “conservatism”. Now that the entire GOP has been put into the wilderness, Flake takes to the pages of the Washington Post for a well-deserved round of I Told You So. More to the point, Flake draws the map for Republicans to return from their largely self-imposed exile from power:

Much of the backroom maneuvering and media speculation in the coming weeks will focus on identifying new standard-bearers for the party. This is important, and after a second straight drubbing, the House Republican leadership should be replaced. But the far more critical task is determining what standard these new leaders will bear.

I suggest that we return to first principles. At the top of that list has to be a recommitment to limited government. After eight years of profligate spending and soaring deficits, voters can be forgiven for not knowing that limited government has long been the first article of faith for Republicans.

Of course, it’s not the level of spending that gets the most attention; it’s the manner in which the spending is allocated. The proliferation of earmarks is largely a product of the Gingrich-DeLay years, and it’s no surprise that some of the most ardent practitioners were earmarked by the voters for retirement yesterday. Few Americans will take seriously Republican speeches on limited government if we Republicans can’t wean ourselves from this insidious practice. But if we can go clean, it will offer a stark contrast to the Democrats, who, after two years in training, already have their own earmark favor factory running at full tilt.

Second, we need to recommit to our belief in economic freedom. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” may be on the discount rack this year, but the free market is still the most efficient means to allocate capital and human resources in an economy, and Americans know it. Now that we’ve inserted government deeply into the private sector by bailing out banks and businesses, the temptation will be for government to overstay its welcome and force the distribution of resources to serve political ends. Substituting political for economic incentives is not the recipe for economic recovery.

The failure of the Republicans did not start with the George Bush presidency, and Flake nails this point.  It started with Congressional leadership, which took a wrong turn almost immediately after gaining majorities in both chambers.  Instead of committing to limited government and sacrificing some measure of power for substantial change in the direction of the federal government, the GOP leadership launched the K Street Project and allied itself with the very lobbyists that feast off of bloated government.

While Clinton was President, the Republican Congress could still talk “limited government” while playing footsie with lobbyists by serving up the pork.  Once Bush and his “compassionate conservatism” took over the White House, these Republican leaders showed themselves as nothing more than big-government enablers with only a different set of winners to pick among lobbyists.  They ceased being anything other than Democrats with Different Friends.   Small wonder that no one buys the “limited government” argument any longer.

Maybe after losing two successive electoral cycles, people will finally start listening to Flake.  He has exactly the right prescription for the affliction Republicans have given themselves — a focus on fiscal conservatism and limited government, and an adamant opposition to spoils politics.  If the GOP is to ever regain credibility with voters as a positive force for real change, then they have to show commitment to principle over power, a fatal failure of the last Republican majority.

Over the next few weeks, we will be discussing where the future of conservatism lies.  I’d argue that Jeff Flake represents the best of it and should be considered one of the visionaries of the movement, if we’d just get more Republicans in office to listen to him.