I grew up in a particularly conservative part of the already conservative state of Indiana. I voted for Bob Dole in 1996 and George Bush in 2000, generally because — though I'm not a conservative (I'm a libertarian) — I'd always thought the GOP was the party of limited government. By 2002, I was less sure of that. And by 2004, I was so fed up with the party that I did what I thought I'd never do — vote for an unabashed leftist for president.

Since then, "fed up" has soured to "given up." The Republican Party has exiled its Goldwater-Reagan wing and given up all pretense of any allegiance to limited government. In the last eight years, the GOP has given us a monstrous new federal bureaucracy in the Department of Homeland Security. In the prescription drug benefit, it's given us the largest new federal entitlement since the Johnson administration. Federal spending — even on items not related to war or national security — has soared. And we now get to watch as the party that's supposed to be "free market" nationalizes huge chunks of the economy's financial sector.

This isn't to say that Barack Obama would be any better. Government would undoubtedly grow under his watch. And from my libertarian perspective, he has been increasingly disappointing even on the issues where he's supposed to be good. We may not go to war with Iran in an Obama administration, but we'd likely become entrenched in a prolonged nation-building adventure in the Sudan. Obama's vote on the FISA bill and telecom immunity also suggests that, for all his criticisms of President Bush's use of executive power and assaults on civil liberties, Obama wouldn't be much better. On the drug war, Obama has promised to end the federal raids on medical marijuana clinics in states that have legalized the drug for treatment, but he wants to resurrect failed federal criminal justice block grant programs that have had some disastrous effects on civil liberties.

While I'm not thrilled at the prospect of an Obama administration (especially with a friendly Congress), the Republicans still need to get their clocks cleaned in two weeks, for a couple of reasons.

First, they had their shot at holding power, and they failed. They've failed in staying true to their principals of limited government and free markets. They've failed in preventing elected leaders of their party from becoming corrupted by the trappings of power, and they've failed to hold those leaders accountable after the fact. Congressional Republicans failed to rein in the Bush administration's naked bid to vastly expand the power of the presidency (a failure they're going to come to regret should Obama take office in January). They failed to apply due scrutiny and skepticism to the administration's claims before undertaking Congress' most solemn task — sending the nation to war. I could go on.

As for the Bush administration, the only consistent principle we've seen from the White House over the last eight years is that of elevating the American president (and, I guess, the vice president) to that of an elected dictator. That isn't hyperbole. This administration believes that on any issue that can remotely be tied to foreign policy or national security (and on quite a few other issues as well), the president has boundless, limitless, unchecked power to do anything he wants. They believe that on these matters, neither Congress nor the courts can restrain him.

That's the second reason the GOP needs to lose. American voters need to send a clear, convincing repudiation of these dangerous ideas.

If they do lose, the GOP would be wise to regroup and rebuild from scratch; scrap the current leadership and, most importantly, purge the party of the "national greatness," neoconservative influence. Big-government conservatism has bloated the federal government, bogged us down in what will ultimately be a trillion-dollar war, and set us down the road to European-style socialism. It's hard to think of how Obama could be worse. He'll just be bad in different ways.

The truth is, unless you vote for a third-party candidate (which really isn't a bad idea), you don't have much of a choice this November. You can either endorse the idea of a massive, invasive, ever-encroaching federal government that's used to promote center-left ideology, or you can endorse the idea of a massive, invasive, ever-encroaching federal government that's used to promote center-right ideology.

Sadly, if the GOP does lose, it's likely to be interpreted not as a repudiation of the GOP's excesses, but as an endorsement of the Democrats'. When the only two parties who have a chance at winning both have a track record of expanding the size and scope of government, every election is likely to be interpreted as a win for big government — only the brand changes.

Voting yourself more freedom simply isn't an option, at least if you want your vote to be taken seriously (and I'm not denigrating any third parties here; I'm just reflecting reality).

Which brings me back to why the Republicans need to get throttled: A humiliated, decimated GOP that rejuvenates and rebuilds around the principles of limited government, free markets, and rugged individualism is really the only chance for voters to possibly get a real choice in federal elections down the road.

Of course, there's no guarantee that's how the party will emerge from defeat. But the Republican Party in its current form has forfeited its right to govern.

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Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine and publishes a weblog at www.TheAgitator.com.

Email your comments to radley.responses@gmail.com.