Republicans and conservatives can succeed only if they come home to Reagan’s vision of America. That vision sees government as a danger but not an enemy, and looks for ways to make it useful rather than harmful to the advancement of a free society. It is a vision in line with the spiritual heritage of Lincoln’s Republican Party — one that gives average people a hand up, not a hand out.
Many conservatives fear that this vision means Republicans will become the second party of big government, but that need not be true. Enabling government to do what it should do also involves pulling it back from all that it should not be doing. Fully implementing this vision would create smaller government because, over the years, we have extended so many handouts to people in all classes who do not need or deserve them. Congressional Republicans have tried to rein in entitlement spending in recent years, but they have failed, in large part because they are using arguments that do not resonate with the majority of the electorate. If Republicans instead simply restored the historical hand-up approach to government, they could shrink the size of the state by as much as or more than their recent budget proposals have suggested — all while increasing the political appeal of the conservative agenda.
Finding this new path will require both new rhetoric and new policy. First and foremost, however, it requires a renewed emphasis on an old goal: helping the common man advance in life. This has long been the driving purpose of American politics and the stated aim of just about every successful political coalition in our history. But in many respects it has ceased to be the goal of the Republican Party, and it needs to become so again.
We now stand at a decisive moment of a sort that comes only about every 40 years in American politics. Ours is a period in which Americans will debate first principles and decide which party is best suited for the foreseeable future to help the average person get along with the realities he faces. In this new century, we are deciding who is going to offer us a modernized form of the American dream.