Monday, November 12, 2012

Whither the Republican party?

Tuesday’s defeat gives the Republican party a perfect opportunity to reform itself. Losses, more than victories, force reevaluation; and I have already read more articles than I can remember on the Republican party's path forward. So far, two main positions have emerged. One is that the party has drifted too far to the right and alienated voters. They’re right. The other is that the election was lost because foundational conservative principles have been abandoned. They’re also right.

Let me explain.

First, the Republican party needs to moderate. Akin and Mourdock were embarrassing disasters when asked softball questions about abortion and consequently threw away two winnable Senate seats. Tea party darling Michele Bachmann barely won. Alan West, another tea party favorite, appears to have lost (despite outspending his opponent by 4 times) but is demanding a recount. Ballot measures legalizing gay marriage passed in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, and a gay marriage ban was defeated in Minnesota. In sum, Social conservatism--at least as presented by the Republicans--was strongly rejected.

Republicans are now perceived as the anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-compassion party that is only concerned about how the rich can get richer. Those charges may be largely false, but in politics perception is more important than reality. Especially when little is done to rebut these accusations. As one critic wrote:

The ideas are gone. The GOP is driven by cults of personality. Palin and other know-nothings. The Hispanic vote is sought through tokens who say things the anti-intellectual base likes to hear. Rubio would be a disaster. Whereas Conservative intellectuals used to make their home in this party, most thoughtful intellectuals sit outside its doors, locked out by the Tea Party idiots and the Fox News and talk-radio shouting heads. They’ve build a cottage industry of bad books, drug-like media, and populist propaganda, but they are losing elections because the business of politics is not the same as the business of business. It sells, but win elections it does not. This political industry has many flaws, but its most debilitating one has been to align itself with the lowest-brow Christian group in the country: Protestant Evangelical Fundamentalists. These evolution denying, global warming outraged, ahistorical nativists have single-handedly driven the GOP into a reactionary defensiveness that once belonged on the other side of the aisle. In the process they will continue to alienate thinking people and people who are threatened by their constant caricatures of themselves, even when the caricature isn’t wholly true. Hispanics don’t vote for Republicans because they don’t trust their general image. And why should they! Listen to their fearful fetishizing over the English language many of them can barely speak and don’t seem to read. Or their ignorance of the history of Hispanic culture and heritage native to this country.

That is harsh, but embarrassingly true. Despite having a robust cannon, many of today’s Republicans seem more interested in their echo chamber and have exchanged Burke and Buckley for Beck and Barton.

Second, the party needs to become more conservative. As was always the risk with selecting Romney, it was a failure of the base to turn out that led to this loss. Romney soundly won independents, but still got fewer total votes than McCain in 2004. Whether because the conservative wing of the country distrusted him, the evangelicals couldn’t vote for a Mormon, or some other reason, Tuesday’s loss was largely self-inflicted.

So how can those two apparently opposite positions be reconciled? Simply. We need not a reexamination of our conservative principles, but a reapplication of those principles to today’s challenges. It is the same adjustment Tony Blair made in his reformation of Britain’s Labour party:

In my view, we needed a complete, top-to-bottom reorientation of our programme and policies. In particular, we needed to separate conceptually a commitment to our values (timeless) from their application (time-bound).

* * *

It wasn’t at all about changing the basic values or purpose of progressive politics; on the contrary, it was about retrieving them from the deadweight of political and cultural dogma that didn’t merely obscure those values and that purpose, but also defeated them.

The Democratic party made a similar adjustment after the 2004 loss, “mainstreaming and moderating the message, but not changing the ideals, of the left. In Obama, Democrats found someone who shared all of the beliefs of the liberal base but who could talk about them in such a way as not to terrify moderate voters.”

Would that we could learn that lesson. Today’s Republican party has confused its principles with its ideology. Take tax cuts for example: originally touted as a method to shrink the government (“starve the beast”), they are now a hill to die on come hell or high deficits. On immigration reform the “pro-family” and “pro-federalism” party advocates ripping families apart, destroying the very local communities it praises. Republican criticisms of welfare now sound less like caring about the poor by lifting them out of poverty and more like resenting them for being poor and costing so much. They might as well die and decrease the surplus expense (along with “all them illegals”). After Tuesday’s defeat, the county-by-county map is used to bolster a false sense of majority, implicitly telling all those who live in the city that there is no room for them in this tent (since city-dwellers are all moochers anyway). Even with abortion, where the pro-life cause has more support from the general population than ever before, Republicans can’t explain their position in a way that cares about the baby, let alone the mother. Is it any surprise that this agenda was rejected? It practically stereotypes itself.

The application of conservative principles needs moderation--which itself is a conservative principle. The ability to order issues by importance, to know when to compromise, and, ultimately, to prudently assess any situation should be a strength of any conservative party. This requires recognizing that while foundational principles don’t change depending on the circumstances, the application of those principles may. The Republican party currently has it backwards: rigid application of fluid principles rather than reasonable application of foundational principles.

We also need better candidates. Many are tempted to blame Romney for the loss. I don’t. More than any other candidate (with the possible exception of Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out way too early), Romney’s instincts were to be reasonable. That is half of the coin, and he was the only candidate that had it. And his conservative principles were steadily increasing. (For those who think that he didn’t have credibility on Obamacare, his position was no worse than Santorum on budget restraint, Gingrich or Cain on family values, or Perry on crony capitalism. And Romney actually talked about federalism when it came to health care. When was the last time any other major Republican figure did that?)

What we need are candidates firmly grounded in conservative thought and prepared to explain it in reasonable terms. Unfortunately, in this election, many candidates had one or the other, but few had both. November 6, 2012, gives the Republican party a perfect opportunity to finally tackle these big issues. Whether it will do so, taking a long term view instead of simply attempting to score cheap political points against the Democrats, remains to be seen.
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