How to Sustain a “Republican Spring”
Chris Ladd has written a post on how to rebuild the GOP. In many ways, he is trying to communicate what I’ve been saying for years: the need to create a viable alternative view of governance than what has been brought forward by groups like the Tea Party. I want to offer some critiques on his advice and how to move forward.
Ladd’s point is that moderates and others not on the far right must take on and fight the Tea Party:
Traditional Republicans have been reluctant to engage in open dissent out of respect for party’s ethos of disciplined unity. Tea party groups couldn’t care less about unity. They have shown no concern whatsoever in undermining party interests in favor of their own. “Party unity” is a pillow pressed over our faces. It will be necessary to forge compromises to make any party realignment work, but an open split with the extremist wing will have to come first.
This is the dream of a lot of folks disgruntled with the GOP. It used to be my own tactic. The problem is that in some ways it offers a bizarro version of the far right: be as intolerant as they are. The other thing is calling out the far right has never really been a successful strategy other than getting a lot of folks on the left rather excited. A number of folks loved John McCain’s “agents of intolerance” crack, but most of those enthralled by that didn’t support him in the 2000 GOP primaries. Jon Huntman got points for saying that he, as opposed to other Republicans, believed in climate change. Again, he didn’t get very far. Actually, we could go as far back as the 1964 GOP Convention in San Francisco where leading liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller slammed the insurgent and successful Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson that year, but the moderates in the party didn’t succeed in becoming the dominant faction.
The thing about this theory is that it believes that the problem with the modern GOP lies only in its far right flank. If we just get rid of those folks, then everything will be okay and people will flock to the party again.
But I don’t think the problems facing the GOP are just the fault of the Tea Party. The problems are more systemic and won’t be solved by getting rid of the “unwanted” be they the Tea Party or “RINOs.”
The Democrats faced a similar problem in the 1980s as the far left kept the party from winning national elections. Democrats didn’t try to go to war with the far left; instead moderates within the party created an alternative vision and then went about selling it. The far left wasn’t its enemy. What these New Democrats did is offered themselves as the winnable option against the Republicans. They came up with ideas that co-opted Republican ideas and then made them acceptable to liberals and moderates alike.
The problem the GOP faces these days is not because of the Tea Party. They might be more the symptom then they are the problem. The reason that Mitt Romney and John McCain before him, lost the race to the White House was not because of the Tea Party as much as it was the party was stuck in the 1980s, the same way the Democrats were stuck in the 1930s. America had moved on, but the political party still offers the same policies that gave it victory.
If we want to have what Ladd calls a “Republican Spring” we need to do a few things that will create lasting change and not feed into liberal fantasies.
- Offer an alternative with real policies. Too often the GOP dissidents tend to see the problem as one that is focused on social issues like abortion or gay rights. But the moderates or dissidents need to come up with not only a social alternative, but present a clear governing vision that focuses on economic issues. While I might disagree with someone like Ross Douthat on social issues, he tends to be spot on when it comes to how the GOP should attend the economic needs of the middle and lower classes.
A related point to this is that some of the more moderate candidates that lose to the Tea Party were not stellar candidates. Indiana’s Richard Murdock was a horrible candidate, but Richard Lugar had been in so long he could not articulate a clear governing vision that would bring folks in to vote for him in the GOP primary.
- The Tea Party is not a monolith. If you follow the major media, you tend get a picture of the Tea Party as a group of tri-corner hat crazies. While there are those kind of people (think Minnesota’s own Michelle Bachmann), the faction is far more complex than the simplistic caritacure. Yes someone like Ted Cruz confirms the Tea Party stereotype, but remember that Marco Rubio , who leading the charge to reform our immigration laws, was elected to the Senate with Tea Party support as well. This leads to another point:
- Co-opt the Tea Party. When Bill Clinton ran in 1992, he made news for his condemnation of rapper Sister Souljah. It was a moment where he was seen putting the far left in it’s place. But while he did that, he also was able inject conservative values with liberal beliefs in the role of government. He could talk about welfare reform and also talk about health care reform. Clinton was able to co-opt the liberal wing of the party and get them to support his centrist campaign. The successful GOP candidate will be able to blend conservative values with the moment we are now in. They will learn to co-opt the Tea Party penchant for small government with a belief that government might not do everything, but the things it does will be done well. In essence, the road to reforming the GOP lies in holding on the base and also expanding the party as well.
- Do you like the GOP? One of the problem with GOP dissidents is that you get the feeling that they don’t like the party they claim to be a part of. Ross Douthat shared that one of the reasons for Utah Governor Jon Huntsman lost was not that he was too moderate, but because it seemed like he didn’t like the electorate that he needed to vote for him:
He picked high-profile fights on two hot-button issues — evolution and global warming — that were completely irrelevant to his candidacy’s rationale. He let his campaign manager define his candidacy as a fight to save the Republican Party from a “bunch of cranks.” And he embraced his identity as the media’s favorite Republican by letting the liberal journalist Jacob Weisberg write a fawning profile for Vogue.
This was political malpractice at its worst. Voters don’t necessarily need to like a candidate to vote for him, but they need to think that he likes them. Imagine a contender for the Democratic nomination introducing himself to liberal voters by attacking Planned Parenthood, distancing himself from “left-wing nutjobs” and giving a series of interviews on Fox News, and you have the flavor of how Huntsman’s opening act was perceived on the right. The substance mattered less than the symbolism, which screamed: I want your vote, but I don’t particularly care to be associated with your stupidities.
Shorter Douthat: if you call people stupid and nutty, don’t be surprised if they don’t want to vote for you. People want someone who they percieve cares about them. They aren’t going to support someone who looks down on them. A GOP politician has to deal with the electorate they have, not the one they wish for.
The thing is, if you’re going to run as a Republican, you have to respect the base of the party. No one should expect to get very far in the GOP selection process if you call those who you’re going to vote for cranks. Douthat is correct that people don’t need to like a candidate, but they need to know that the candidate likes them. While people on either side of Mitt Romney see him as a flip-flopper who tries to please the base, the fact of the matter is if he wanted to be considered a candidate he was going to have to tailor his views to the GOP electorate.Of course, if moderates were more involved on the party level, then candidates like Romney wouldn’t have to give up their views on gay rights and abortion in order to be considered in the GOP.
But I think this all goes back to how the base is treated. I don’t think one has to give their more moderate social views to be considered for President, but you need to bring the focus on issues like jobs and not give Christmas presents to pundits by calling folks who might vote for you crazy. It’s crazy to think you can do that and get votes in the current primary system.
This leads to my final point:
- Politics today works for the bottom up. Moderates in the GOP are not the ones that will throw themselves into party work. They won’t spend time trying to get out the vote. We expect that the establishment will pick one of the wise men to lead the various elected offices. We are not interested in going to conventions, much less caucuses. Conservatives in the GOP tend to be more active. They are the ones who go to party functions and will work hard to get out the vote. Moderates in the party need to stop thinking the party will just be handed to them.
I think the GOP will change. Heck, it needs to change. But a bloody intraparty fight will please no one except Democrats who will come and sweep in and win.