Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party provoked a firestorm of debate about the future of the Republican Party and its ability to become a majority party once again in America. Many on the left have framed this question as a choice between purity and popularity. This is a false dichotomy designed to be a lose-lose proposition for the GOP. The better questions are: What guiding principles define the modern Republican Party? Where should the party be flexible and where must it be resolute?
Since the "tent" seems to be the preferred metaphor for addressing this issue, I will use it to make my case.
I see the tent's poles as the many ideas that animate the Republican Party. We can and should have a vibrant, ongoing debate about how many poles the tent should have and where they should be positioned.
Surely one of the poles supporting the Republican tent is a strong national defense. But whether and when to go to war, where to station troops overseas, and how much to spend and on what kinds of weapons are all subjects on which good Republicans can disagree.
Respect for the values that Western civilization has developed over many generations is another important pole. I believe that one aspect of this idea is to defend and protect innocent human lives, including those of unborn children. But I would certainly not suggest that those who disagree with the pro-life position be banished from the Republican tent.
Another pole almost all Republicans feel strongly about is fiscal discipline. Less government spending and lower taxes are important Republican precepts but exactly what level of spending and how much to tax are surely topics for endless debate among good Republicans. No one has a monopoly on the right answers to these inherently subjective fiscal questions.
A strong, diverse and healthy Republican Party should welcome an open and lively debate about these and other poles in our tent. But a tent consists of more than just poles. In fact, the purpose of the poles is to hold up the fabric that unifies the poles and provides the cooling shade that brings people to the tent in the first place. It is this unifying fabric, this common Republican cloth that is the essential defining characteristic of what it means to be a Republican.
This unifying idea is that personal freedom is the highest political goal of our great nation. It is not the only goal, but the most important. To achieve it necessarily means the power of government must be limited so it cannot excessively infringe on our freedom. All who embrace this transcendent theme should be welcome in the Republican tent.
Limited government and individual freedom were the primary principles of our nation's founding, and of our party's founding amid the anti-slavery movement. They must be the central theme of the Republican Party because they are so fundamental to our national identity, because they offer better solutions for the problems Americans face today and because they are under attack today as never before.
The modern Democratic Party is based on the opposite premise. Its highest goal is to attempt to achieve a society of more equal outcomes. Since they are not satisfied with the inequality of outcomes in a free society, like all quasi-utopians, they must rely on the coercive power of government to force the outcomes they seek.
Thus, the Democrats support exorbitant taxes on the productive; the redistribution of wealth; employment and academic quotas; increasing control over business; government-controlled health care, day care and education. The list goes on. And if the current Congress has its way, it will go on, and on, and on.
All of which is why today, perhaps more than ever before, the Republican Party has to stand in defense of individual freedom and must try to limit the power of the growing leviathan.
Arlen Specter never believed in limiting the power of government and defending the freedom of the individual. As long as he is wielding the levers of power, he wants that power to grow. His active cooperation with the current regime's massive expansion of government power was the straw that broke the camel's back for Pennsylvania Republicans. Or perhaps the last tearing of the fabric of freedom of the Republican tent.
That's the reason Mr. Specter fit so uncomfortably in the Republican tent. But for all of those out there who share the desire for more personal freedom and a less intrusive and growing government in Washington, the Republican Party's tent has the welcome mat out for you.
Pat Toomey , a former member of Congress, is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania in 2010.