By JIM DEMINT
Sen. Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party this week is no reason for Republicans to cheer. But his reason for leaving -- he faced an unwinnable primary election next year -- is no cause for soul searching. There is a question Republicans do need to ask: What is it that binds our party together?
In the wake of two successive electoral defeats and the likelihood of a 60-vote Democrat majority in the Senate, what does it even mean to be a Republican today? Moderate Republicans are right to remind conservatives that they cannot build a center-right coalition without the center part. And conservatives are right to remind moderates that Republicans only succeed when we rally around clear principles.
The real mistake is that Republicans became more concerned with staying in D.C. than reforming it.
Despite notable successes at both ends of Pennsylvania Ave., it seems to me that Republicans in Congress and in the Bush administration forgot a simple truth. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if you aim for principled reform, you win elections in the bargain; if you just aim for elections, you get neither.
No Child Left Behind didn't win us "soccer moms," but it did cost us our credibility on locally controlled education. Medicare prescription drugs didn't win us a "permanent majority," but it cost us our credibility on entitlement reform. Every year, another Republican quality was tainted: managerial competence, fiscal discipline and personal ethics.
To win back the trust of the American people, we must be a "big tent" party. But big tents need strong poles, and the strongest pole of our party -- the organizing principle and the crucial alternative to the Democrats -- must be freedom. The federal government is too big, takes too much of our money, and makes too many of our decisions. If Republicans can't agree on that, elections are the least of our problems.
If the American people want a European-style social democracy, the Democratic Party will give it to them. We can't win a bidding war with Democrats.
Freedom will mean different things to different Republicans, but it can tether a diverse coalition to inalienable principles. Republicans can welcome a vigorous debate about legalized abortion or same-sex marriage; but we should be able to agree that social policies should be set through a democratic process, not by unelected judges. Our party benefits from national-security debates; but Republicans can start from the premise that the U.S. is an exceptional nation and force for good in history. We can argue about how to rein in the federal Leviathan; but we should agree that centralized government infringes on individual liberty and that problems are best solved by the people or the government closest to them.
Moderate and liberal Republicans who think a South Carolina conservative like me has too much influence are right! I don't want to make decisions for them. That's why I'm working to reduce Washington's grip on our lives and devolve power to the states, communities and individuals, so that Northeastern Republicans, Western Republicans, Southern Republicans, and Midwestern Republicans can define their own brands of Republicanism. It's the Democrats who want to impose a rigid, uniform agenda on all Americans. Freedom Republicanism is about choice -- in education, health care, energy and more. It's OK if those choices look different in South Carolina, Maine and California.
A Republican recommitment to freedom and limited government will foster an agenda that will strengthen and invigorate our party. Freedom has worked for our party and our country before. It will again, if we let it.
Mr. DeMint is a Republican senator from South Carolina.