The announcement by Arlen Specter last week that he is now a Democrat in name as well as principle has some once again asking the question, "What's next for the GOP?" - yet if we're going to effectively answer that question, it's important to dispense with the notion that Senator Specter's party switch represents some sort of setback for the conservative movement at large.
Specter first won his Senate seat in 1980, riding into D.C. on the back of the Reagan Revolution, and I'd suspect we'd find few who disagree that Reagan's GOP of the 1980's was more conservative than today's iteration. To that end, I think one could reasonably argue that contrary to the storyline Specter and his allies on the left would have us believe - that it was the GOP who left Specter - the Senator's decision was based on the simple fact that he couldn't win a Republican primary.
What Specter's defection really underscores is an allegiance by many to the 'Party of Incumbency' rather than to the Party they claim to represent, be it Republican or Democrat. It's this kind of soulless pragmatism that turns people off to politics and helps perpetuate a ruling class more loyal to themselves than to the people who elected them.
That same allegiance to power over principle is what has been largely responsible for devastating the Republican brand, and until more in our Party start governing like they campaign, it is my belief we will have great difficulty regaining the trust of the American electorate. With that thought in mind, I'd humbly suggest the following prescriptions for what ails the Republican Party.
First, get back to the principle of saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Voters have seen many Republicans who have campaigned on the conservative themes of lower taxes, less government and more freedom, and consistently failed to govern that way. Americans didn't turn away from conservatism; they instead turned away from those who faked it.
Second, our loyalties need to be to ideas, not to individuals. While I do indeed believe in the importance of a big GOP tent, that tent must be built upon a shared agreement on the essentials - including expanding liberty, encouraging entrepreneurship and limiting the reach of government in people's everyday lives.
In this regard, the tent cannot be so big as to include political franchisees who don't act on the core tenets of conservatism - and as a consequence harm the brand and undermine others' work on it.
Finally, we must avoid the temptation that comes with Minority status to simply be the party of "no." While it's important to argue against that with which we disagree, the American people will in the end respond to policies that make a tangible difference in their lives. Conservatives need to articulate meaningful alternatives to having the government take over a much, much larger sphere of our lives. No matter the issue, we cannot accede to the notion that conservatives don't have a solution.
In the end, Arlen Specter becoming a Democrat of course creates some short-term practical problems. On issues like the upcoming Supreme Court fight the lack of a filibuster threat will likely embolden the President to move further leftward than he otherwise may have done.
That does not however mean that the loss of Arlen Specter from the GOP is a crippling blow to conservatism, as he didn't much have anything to do with conservatism while he called himself a Republican. Instead, the Party should take Mr. Specter's departure as yet another opportunity to shore up our brand and to stand tall for those intrinsically conservative ideals that once defined our Party and in turn, our nation.
By Mark Sanford
Special to CBSNews.com