The Return of the GOP as a National Party
After the Republican Party was massively defeated in the 2006 Congressional elections, then almost as badly in the 2008 Presidential and Congressional elections, there was a fair amount of discussion that the GOP’s national profile was on the verge of being relegated to that of a regional party, a party of the Deep South and the rural Bible Belt. Despite the huge gains made by the GOP in the Tea Party election of 2010, that election did not go very far to disproving this belief, as relatively few of the GOP’s gains came in blue states; even where they were able to achieve success in blue states, those successes were just about entirely confined to rural areas in those states (e.g., Jon Runyan’s narrow victory in NJ’s 3rd District, essentially the Pine Barrens plus Cherry Hill; Runyan, a former Philadelphia Eagle, also benefitted from unusually high name recognition in the area). That Mitt Romney, despite a terrible economy, nonetheless has an extremely difficult road to win the electoral college, would seem to only further emphasize the point.
The most obvious claim made to explain this apparent regionalization is that the GOP has become so ideologically rigid and dogmatic that it can no longer support a big tent; just about all of the old Rockefeller Republicans are now Democrats; Arlen Specter felt compelled to turn his back on the party, and Maine’s senators are almost as despised by most Republicans for their ideological impurity as the President. The popular perception outside of its strongholds is that the party is defined, above all else, by cultural and racial resentments.
I think that there is a lot of truth to this narrative. But I’d also argue that it is inevitable in our system that the political parties will go through periods such as the Republicans have these last few years. Watching Paul Ryan’s cynical Sarah Palin impersonation
last the other night, I don’t think the GOP has come out of the wilderness yet. It is still living too much in fear of its base rather than trying to lead it; the result of this is a party nominally led by a smarmy, insincere, and basically dishonest elite that has a tendency to sound like a group of self-absorbed and tone deaf candidates for Student Council President at a liberal arts college, but in reality led by an increasingly frustrated base of average (mostly white) Americans with better things to do with their lives than learn the details of policy proposals.
But, if I can mix metaphors a bit, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Blue Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie’s approval ratings have hovered around or above 50% for nearly his entire term, and have consistently exceeded his disapproval ratings by wide margins. In no small part, his persona screams Working Class Jersey Boy, and that persona is not merely an act. Despite a typically combative relationship with social conservatives, Christie is viewed as a GOP star in the making, repeatedly and loudly begged to run for President this year, rumored to have been Romney’s first choice for a running mate, and the keynote speaker at the GOP convention the other night.
Scott Brown, in 2010, pulled off a shocking upset to take Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat in Massachusetts, and maintains even odds to hold onto his seat despite a much stronger opponent in his re-election campaign just two years later. A longtime National Guardsman raised by a single mother who was on welfare for a period of time, the indelible imagery of Brown’s campaigns is of his pickup truck.
Linda McMahon, despite her close connection to the seedy world of professional wrestling and staunch opposition from her own party’s Old Guard, holds a surprising lead in the race for the Connecticut Senate seat this year. Here is the ad that McMahon is running all over the place, at least in the New York media market to which I am a captive:
While we’re here, we may as well add Condi Rice’s highly praised, well articulated speech at the Republican National Convention to the list, given that its combination of passion and reasonability has already stirred up speculation about a possible run in 2016.
On the issues, it is perhaps not surprising that all three of the above Northeastern politicians are far to the left of the Republican Party’s national center, particularly on what we loosely call “social issues.” After all, attempts to capitalize on the Tea Party “wave” of 2010 by pushing more self-consciously conservative candidates in the Northeast that year failed absolutely miserably; as has long been the case, only comparatively liberal Republicans can succeed in the Northeast, and on the issues there is indeed quite a bit of superficial similarity between this new crop of Northeastern Republicans and what have traditionally been referred to as “moderate” Republicans.
And yet….there is something different about this group. Where Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are quintessential RINOs, Chris Christie gets the keynote speech at the convention, and Scott Brown seems to remain broadly popular with conservatives nationally. Where Christopher Shays’ name is close to an expletive amongst conservatives, Linda McMahon seems to be in fairly good stead with most every Republican not named Christopher Shays.
The reason for this distinction strikes me as interesting. The distinction cannot simply be that these new politicians downplay their unconservative heresies – they don’t: Christie, despite his long-rumored national aspirations, is known for loudly and publicly picking fights with conservatives over Islamophobia and has bragged about his execution of a significant piece of drug law reform legislation; Brown was perhaps the first and loudest Republican voice to call for Todd Akin’s resignation from the Missouri Senate campaign; and the McMahon ad above conspicuously emphasizes that she once had to declare bankruptcy and go on food stamps.
No, I think the distinction is instead that these politicians are unashamed of who they are; by and large they do not pretend to be all things to all people, as seems to be the case with Romney** and, increasingly, Ryan. In the case of Christie and Brown (and perhaps in the case of McMahon, though there isn’t enough to make a conclusion there yet), they seem to be sincerely interested in reforming their party and are more than willing to criticize it when they think it goes off the rails or doesn’t represent their values or the values of their constituents. But unlike the Old Guard of GOP moderates, they’re interested in making that reform from within – they are not going to pick up their ball and go home, nor does it seem that they call themselves Republicans just so they can get a better line on the ballot come election time.
They seem to have clear core principles, which they seem to sincerely believe they share with conservatives. Where their beliefs diverge with conservatives nationally, they, in effect, seem to make an argument that their personal views are the proper application of conservative values. In short, they actually talk to the conservative base and treat it with respect, and that base treats them with respect in return; they don’t simply tell that base what they think it wants to hear, and they value pluralism within the party in a way that the dogmatists of talk radio do not.
I do not pretend to know what the outcome of this will be in terms of how it ultimately affects the GOP’s core values. What I do know is that they will at the very least create a GOP with a significantly broader appeal than the current national incarnation of that party.
This is how reform of the GOP always needed to happen. As I wrote three years ago:
[Reform]is not a function of asking that conservative reformers abandon their principles or censor themselves. Quite the opposite: it’s a function of asking that conservative reformers fearlessly stand up proudly for their individual principles. Do this, and reformers may or may not convince other conservatives to follow. Focus instead on the low-hanging fruit that is extremist rhetoric and liberal shortcomings and reformers will continue to fail to present a vision of conservatism worth following.
*Nothing in this post should be viewed as a personal endorsement of any of the candidates described here. I am not a conservative and do not pretend to be, though I’ll admit that I’ve come to hold Gov. Christie in a significantly higher regard than most politicians. The point of this post is just that I think these particular politicians have a prospect of building a GOP that can be competitive outside of its rural strongholds without sacrificing party cohesion.
**This post was written before Romney’s speech last night, which I thought was one of the better speeches he’s ever given, which is to say that it sounded like a pretty typical, boilerplate, but reasonably well-delivered nomination acceptance speech. In context, that’s better than I was expecting, but not anything worth getting excited about.