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{Colorado Springs Gazette, 2012-08-08}

“Republican Party in California is caught in cycle of decline:” I know the New York Times has never been conservatives’ favorite news source, but they would do well to read this story. If the left has its way in Colorado, we will be in as bad fiscal shape as California within the next decade. This could provide an opportunity for Republicans, but only if they avoid the mistakes of their conservative California cohorts.

The numbers speak for themselves. California’s registered Republicans have shrunk to 30 percent of the electorate. Democrats have half again as many registered voters. No Republicans hold statewide office. You would think, given the state’s economic train wreck, Republicans would be on the verge of a comeback. Not so. Why? Because of the Grand Obsolete Party of California’s relentless emphasis on social issues.

The article interviews current and former Republican consultants who bemoan the party’s “doctrinaire” stance on social issues. Independent voters are known to be libertarian: Fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Republicans giving inordinate attention to social issues in a state with a large block of independent voters is a recipe for disaster.

I share many conservatives’ frustration with much of the social pathologies that plague America. We have an illegitimacy rate among the urban poor, and some ethnic groups in particular, that is a national disgrace. I am divorced and a child of divorce, but you will find no greater defender of marriage than me. And I know illegal drugs can wreck lives. As, of course, can legal ones.

But social conservatives should do some serious soul-searching before they equate the bad with the banned.

For example, how well do the political solutions proposed by social conservatives actually work? How effective is drug prohibition compared to the alternatives? Is the federal government really the best tool to use? Are there unintended consequences to a proposed policy that might make things worse? Could addressing this issue make government bigger, and therefore be incompatible with other conservative goals?

These are all questions on which thoughtful people can disagree, but as far as I can tell the discussion isn’t even happening. In the name of party unity, you’re not supposed to ask such questions.

For many, I suspect, how well a particularly policy works isn’t as important as taking a stand. Taking a stand for what we believe is right is important, and it feels very satisfying. There is something about being human that makes us all want to do it.

But much of what makes something truly good is that it is freely consented to, not imposed from without. When you “take a stand” in politics, it is different from a church pulpit or a family dinner. Politics is not about suggestions: Candidates do not seek political power because they hope to give advice. Politics is about making law, and law is ultimately about force. If you don’t obey the law, you go to jail.

Conservatives might cry foul, because liberals use law to promote morality all the time. They have been imposing their values on the rest of us for years, so when is it our turn? One answer is that Democratic social engineering has terrible unintended consequences that in the long run make things worse, as many conservative thinkers have pointed out. Conservative social engineering, I would argue, has exactly the same problems. To believe otherwise is the height of hypocrisy.

Another answer is that conservatives are supposed to care about liberty. Today’s Democrats are obsessed with compelling the good. What becomes of our liberty if Republicans steal a page from their playbook and obsess over forbidding the bad? Will anything be left that we can decide for ourselves?

Do Republicans want to be like Democrats, or do they want to beat them? If Colorado is to avoid California’s fate, then Colorado should avoid California’s Republicans. They should hit economic issues much harder, and stop obsessing over problems that the federal government can’t solve, are fundamentally religious in nature, or are better addressed through cultural change and not the ballot box.

Otherwise, California here we come.