Let the recriminations begin.

Republicans nationally and in Texas are headed for a debate about why the GOP lost so badly in the national elections–and whether the victory in Texas was as decisive as it appeared to be. The central question will be whether Republicans lost the national election (and took some serious lumps in Texas) because they were (1) not conservative enough, or because they were (2) too conservative. My answer would be (1) yes and (2) yes. Much of politics come down to the struggle between the sometimes competing, sometimes compatible ideas of liberty and equality. The party of the right traditionally comes down on the side of liberty, but the Bush administration, with the Republican Congress aiding and abetting, was not conservative in its approach to constitutional liberties. The administration’s agenda to expand executive power at the expense of Congress caused national debates over issues that have never been on the table before, because of the threat to liberty that they involve: secret surveillance programs, the justification of torture, and the right to try suspected terrorists before military tribunals. At the same time, the administration was too conservative on issues that were on the political fringe and obviously pandered to the right-to-life movement, such as keeping Terry Schiavo alive and preventing more stem cell research. Meanwhile, as Majority Leader, Tom DeLay developed a system of “buying” the votes of recalcitrant Republicans by promising them “earmarks”–pork barrel projects–that contributed to the growth of the federal budget. Closer to home, the Republican leadership took an approach to school finance that violated the core conservative principle of local control, even centralizing the decision as to when school had to begin. It was no wonder that Republicans came to wonder what their party stood for.

One of the bellwethers of Republican opinion in this state is the Texas Conservative Review, an online journal that is primarily the work of former Harris County Republican chairman Gary Polland. While most Republicans regard the Texas election as a resounding success, Polland takes a more skeptical view that all politics is local, and at the local level, Republicans lost every contested race in Dallas County and got blitzed in legislative races. His comments follow:

“[I]s the recent GOP sweep statewide in Texas just a mirage of GOP dominance? The answer is maybe. Admittedly, it was a bad year nationally for the GOP and we did win statewide, but peeling back the veneer we see why we won. Governor Perry had 4 opponents and outspent the Democratic candidate at least 6-1 and got 39%, 9% more than Chris Bell.

“As for the other statewide candidates, they outspent their low profile opponents at least 100-1 and won with an average of 54%. TCR wonders what would have happened if the Democrats ran Bill White for governor and other Democrats who actually had a campaign. We might have survived, but maybe not at the top.

“It’s clear we had a year with setbacks, the Dallas County massacre (a loss of all county-wide races), a loss of six State Representative seats statewide, a near loss of down ballot races in Harris County (winning 51-49 against no-name opponents without real campaigns is not impressive). So it’s clear the challenge is now there.”

Polland credits Houston Republicans such as county commissioner Steve Radack, tax assessor Paul Bettencourt, and congressman (and former district judge) Ted Poe with calling for quick action before Harris County becomes the next Republican bulwark to fall. He calls for a task force comprised of party activists, leaders, and elected officials to recommend solutions. His conclusion: “One thing is clear, we are more like the nation than we might like. We are just a little behind, and we need to get rid of the cheerleaders in our party (and substitute them with the workers) as we can no longer coast or the Dallas disease will spread rapidly. It’s time to get back to our conservative principles and stick with them, all the rest is commentary.”

John McCain entered the debate on Meet the Press last Sunday, telling host Tim Russert, “[W]e Republicans have lost our way….[W]e came to Washington to change government and government changed us. The spending, the ethics, the massive program such as Medicare prescription drug program, that [we] failed to address their priorities as opposed to our own, and there was–obviously a reaction to it.” He seems to have forgotten to mention anything about a war.

What we can expect to see in the next few months are a rush by Republican politicians and activists to call for a return to conservative principles. If they mean traditional conservative principles–fiscal restraint, free markets, local control, individual freedom, strong moral values, expansion of economic opportunities–Republicans will eventually be successful. If they mean pandering to the economic and social agenda of the far right, they won’t.