The Tampa Republicans: This is not the George W. Bush-Tom DeLay GOP.

The WSJ Editorial

The Republican Party gathering in Tampa this week to nominate Mitt Romney is not your father’s GOP, or even George W. Bush’s. Four years in the wilderness seem to have had the salutary effect of returning the Party of Lincoln to a focus on government reform and economic revival.

Four years ago, the Republicans were a tired bunch who had lost Congress in 2006 and seemed intellectually tapped out. The 9/11 attacks had turned George W. Bush’s focus toward national security and difficult wars abroad, while Tom DeLay presided over a risk-averse Congress focused on incumbent protection. Despite his personal virtues, John McCain had no explanation or answer for the financial panic of 2008, and probably no Republican could have overcome it in any case.

The surprise is how quickly the GOP has rebounded from the routs of 2006 and 2008, starting in the states. Even as the national party foundered, Governors like Mitch Daniels in Indiana (transportation, health care) and Jeb Bush in Florida (education) made their mark as reformers.

The reform momentum has since gained speed as a reaction to the Obama Presidency. First in 2009 with Chris Christie in New Jersey and Bob McDonnell in Virginia, Governors from the East across the Midwest and through the Southwest have won on reform agendas that they have been able to implement to varying degrees.

Bobby Jindal has pressed education and economic revival in Louisiana. Mr. Christie has worked with Democrats in the state legislature to pass pension reform and property-tax limitation. Mr. McDonnell has turned around Virginia’s fisc without a tax increase.

In Ohio and Iowa, respectively, John Kasich and Terry Branstad have focused their governments on fiscal restraint and private job creation. And don’t forget Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, whose collective-bargaining reform for public employees has saved money for school districts and prevented tax increases.

The common theme is restraining governments that were growing far more rapidly than the private economy’s ability to finance them. The contrast of these GOP states couldn’t be greater with the union-dominated Democratic governments of Illinois, California and Connecticut, which resist reform and simply default to ever-higher taxes.

One political irony is that if President Obama wins in November, he will do so by carrying swing states with GOP Governors whose success has helped to keep unemployment below the 8.3% national average. Ohio’s is 7.2%, Iowa’s 5.3%.

The reform impulse has carried over to Washington, thanks to the Congressional victories of 2010. The Tom DeLay Republicans expanded the entitlement state. Speaker John Boehner is a traditional Republican, but his Members followed Paul Ryan’s reform budget on taxes, Medicaid and Medicare. The Senate GOP, though limited by Democratic control, mostly followed suit.

The polls show that Congressional approval is hitting new lows, but this reflects the poor economy and typical voter distaste for legislative gridlock and partisan warfare. It should not deter the GOP from pressing reform if it wins in November. The Governors show that reform can be popular when it is successful and adequately explained.

Much of the credit here goes to the Tea Party, which has used GOP primaries to elevate reformers and motivate incumbents to change or face defeat. Orrin Hatch in Utah adjusted and survived this year. Dick Lugar in Indiana did not, and lost.

Tea Partiers have made their share of tactical mistakes—such as assuming they could make a constitutional amendment to balance the budget the price of a debt-limit increase. But by and large they have been constructive in pushing the GOP to address our real fiscal and economic problems. The establishment GOP, in turn, has wisely accommodated much of the Tea Party agenda, rather than let reformers splinter into a third party that would guarantee a liberal Congress.

What is the biggest danger to this new GOP? It isn’t the social issues like abortion, unless their advocates are as blinkered as Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin. Americans are closely divided on cultural matters with no party having a clear edge, and religious conservatives have become a core part of the GOP coalition.

The real threat to a GOP return to power is its failure to reach out to minority voters, especially Hispanics. Even if they win 60% of white voters this year, Republicans won’t retain a governing majority for long unless they find a way to appeal to minority voters who are growing as a share of the electorate.

This means fielding more diverse candidates, which the party is beginning to do. But it also means adjusting its rhetoric and policies on immigration. A cranky, crabbed view of immigration sends a cultural message that the GOP doesn’t welcome minority voters, and it contradicts the themes of optimism and growth that appeal to most voters.

Immigration aside, the Tampa Republicans are a party in better shape than they might have expected after 2008, and one with a new reform mission. Mitt Romney is not the most natural standard-bearer for such a movement given his political record, but he adapted to win the nomination and his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate reinforces the reform message. Their agenda fits the urgent needs of the country, and we’ll find out in November if it also meshes with the mood of the American public.

this oped appeared on Tuesday edition of the WSJ

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