Two major debates face conservative Republicans about the future of the party. The first, rekindled by Sen. Arlen Specter's switch to the Democratic Party, is whether the GOP should move further leftward. The second is whether conservatives should tone down their advocacy on social issues. History is on the side of outspoken conservatives in both debates.
GOP establishment leaders are incapable of understanding the problem - it's them. The ascendancy of conservatives to power was done by boat-rockers, not establishment politicians. Barry Goldwater laid the foundation of reducing government to conform to the Constitution. Ronald Reagan demonstrated that the conservative vision of smaller government is one of prosperity. The Gingrich revolution started making congressional leaders the servants of the people, not vice versa.
In each case, the message was reforming the Washington establishment. The current GOP leadership has no message or vision that appeals to the grass roots. We never hear from them the boat-rocking message of successful conservatives. Republicans need new leaders who will reverse the big-government policies of Bush 43 and congressional Republicans and articulate and move a conservative agenda forward.
Democrats have nothing to fear from today's Republican Party leaders. That's why Democrats have taken to targeting Rush Limbaugh and others who aren't in formal leadership positions in the GOP but who forcefully articulate a conservative vision.
Republicans need the political equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous. First, they must admit their problem. Next, they must promise never to do it again. Then they must recognize what caused the problem was abandoning the principles of the party and allowing people who didn't believe in those principles to assume leadership positions. Last, when in a hole, stop digging.
Instead, Republicans are still digging. The GOP has lost the Goldwater/Reagan vision of rolling back unconstitutional government and restoring it to its prescribed authority. Its leaders seem barely capable of fighting for basic GOP principles of low taxes, a strong national defense and traditional values.
All the rebranding efforts and pandering tours won't work as long as the party remains under the leadership of the team that was a party-wrecking disaster on the order of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bush 41 and Bush 43.
In the 2008 election, Republicans acquiesced to the Specter/Colin Powell wing and nominated the one member of their party most famously critical of conservatives and most open to partnerships with people from across the aisle, John McCain. That obviously didn't work. Republicans must be able to honestly communicate to Americans that they are "Open Under New Management" - but with old, time-tested principles.
The second debate is whether conservatives should tone down on social issues such as abortion and marriage.
Those, however, who win without principle have neither an agenda nor a mandate and rarely change anything for the better. Political leaders we respect are ones who changed political reality, not those who accommodated themselves to political reality.
Certainly, conservatives need to appeal not just to the faithful but must use logical and constitutional rationales on social issues. But stay quiet? I think not.
Conservatives should withhold financial support from all GOP national committees and establishment politicians but support principled organizations and candidates. They should run candidates for every party and public office except when there's a principled incumbent conservative.
Conservatives should no longer look to Republican politicians for leadership and should assume the role of leading the opposition to Mr. Obama and the Democrats. We have a party and a country to save, and the GOP establishment is in our way.
Richard A. Viguerie is the author of "Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause." This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.