Lenhart: Republicans must be forward-thinking

Republicans are making big decisions right now. The presidential campaign is in full swing, Republicans in Congress are struggling to find consensus amid a divided caucus and narrow votes, and Republican voters are watching and evaluating which direction we want our party to go. As we make these choices, we Republicans must keep a proper mindset if we are to build a party that endures into the future.

Building an enduring party is more of a challenge than it may appear at first glance. Although the United States naturally tends toward a two-party system, parties are not built forever. Federalists, Whigs, Know-Nothings, Progressives and others have all been major parties in our nation’s history, and none exist anymore.

All were either done in by infighting or by a failure to speak to the issues of the day. While the Republican Party is not at risk of falling apart tomorrow, we must be vigilant if we want to avoid the fate of the parties of the past. Issues that may seem minor today may be the cracks that cause us to fall apart in the future.

Disunity within the Republican Party is at a high point. The Republican Party has undergone significant changes in its makeup and message in the past decade, and the dust has yet to settle on those debates.  A major mistake that we must avoid is confusing a political party with a single way of thought.

Different philosophies can and must coexist within a major political party. Otherwise, the party is likely to whither, shrink and ultimately disappear.

Some of the major parties of the past ceased to exist because their members could not coexist with other philosophies. Republicans must be careful not to follow in those footsteps.

Possibly the greatest risk for our party, however, is if we are backward-looking, rather than focused on the future. We have had great leaders and great achievements in our past. We should not forget them, but we should not let them define our current moment.

Too often, our focus on the past causes does not result in us finding inspiration in our prior successes.  Instead, we find grievances and define ourselves by anger at past mistreatment. Anger may be justified, but it is no way to lead.

Our greatest leaders have looked to the past for guidance but have defined themselves by their focus on the future. Americans are an optimistic people. We believe we can make our lives better, that our future is in our own hands, and that ours is a land of opportunity.

We acknowledge our challenges, but there is an abiding belief that we can meet those challenges and make tomorrow better than today. We are a forward-looking people, and our messages should reflect that. 

Unfortunately, much of our discourse lately has been decidedly backward looking. Rather than talk about the future, too many of our candidates and officials spend their time dwelling on the past. They talk about getting retribution on those who have wronged them, all the ways things have been done wrong, and all the injustices they believe they have suffered.

There is no message of what our future will look like, just an appeal to our worst urges. It is both an unappealing message and a losing one. 

If the Republican party is going to remain worthy of support, we are going to have to change our perception and our message. We need to articulate a vision for the future, not a reaction to the past.  This is fortunately easy for us to do. A Republican vision for the future can be very appealing. 

If we spend our time talking about low taxes, responsible government regulation, strong national defense, and building vibrant communities, that is a winning strategy. We need to talk about how America’s best days can be ahead of us, rather than behind us.

There are many reasons why we believe America can be ascendant in the future, and we need to remind people of that. The way we do that is by electing and supporting leaders that keep their eyes on the future, not on the grievances of the past.

The Whig party was one of two major parties in the United States during the early 1800s, electing several presidents and majorities in Congress on several occasions. The last Whig president left office in 1852 and, in 1855, 100 Whigs were elected to Congress.

By 1857, the Whig party ceased to exist. It fell apart because of internal divisions and the failure to speak to the issues of the day. Let’s hope the Republican Party can find the leaders to keep it from going the way of the Whigs.