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May 28, 2009


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The GOP slide can't go on forever, but it's hard to see a way out that isn't long and painful. A majority of the party is as contemptuous of reformers like David Brooks and Ross Douthat as they are of liberals. And contemptuous is a key word--it's not just that they disagree, but they tar people who suggest ideas they don't like. As long as a controlling majority of the party is closer to Limbaugh than Brooks, it's hard to imagine any fundamental change. I guess you'd have to hope that some incredibly charismatic figure can nudge the party back towards the center, and maybe there's a GOP Clinton waiting in the wings, but it would be hard to see him or her get nominated.

Another problem is that so many philosophical pillars of the GOP are either going against the current of the progression of American society (i.e. anti- gay rights, building an anti-Sotomayor case along ethnic lines) or are simply dishonest (i.e. Cheney's recent attacks, or, more enduringly, the idea that lower taxes raises revenue and is always the right approach).

The GOP has two problems, which are going to take a while to undo. One's style, and one's substance.

Whether or not the party is officially a party of torturing, racist, bigoted dingbats, years of making as if it is in fact racist, gay-hating, Arab-Fearing, Pro-Minuteman, makes little difference in public perception. Douthat and Salam made much in their book about how the GOP should really be able to get African-American voters, while forgetting that dogwhistling racism means that your intended target shows up at the polls, but the victim hears it too. The GOP can't really quit the sweet kiss of the needle of the bigot vote, because it can't successfully attract minorities that it otherwise bashes and effectively alienates.

There aren't enough whites without college educations to keep the party aloft nationally anymore, and the wholehearted embrace of the anti-science agenda damages the affections of the Wall Street Faction and moderates who'd like their kids to go to a good school out in the suburbs, including evolution and sex ed.

The stylistic point is that the GOP is the party of Nixon and Reagan; willing to ride racism and other forms of bigotry to victory, and then act wounded and surprised when it's actually accused of being bigots.

In terms of substance, the GOP is sort of tapped out. At the time that the Democrats were having a primary debate centered on the nuances of healthcare policy, the contemporaneous Republican Primary Debate was the first publicized fanboy convention, where everyone tried to create a bigger and better lie about their link to St. Ronald. Another problem was that during the TARP debates around Sep. 20-25, the House GOP could not go along if there weren't tax cuts and a repeal of the estate tax. They've caught themselves with this weird fetishization of Reagan that makes ideology brittle and hard--in a year when the selection of candidates was heterodox (pro-immigrant, technocratic governor, cross dressing mayor, Baptist Minister, anti-immigrant bully, and Dan Brown Villain), the push for orthodoxy was problematic, to say the least.

From a wider view, this is sort of interesting, because the would-be moderate or "reformist" arm of the party is dead, thanks to the Bush years and the Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008; Spector's defection led to that pathetic editorial by Snowe in the New York Times where she seemed unclear that the base had moved away from her, and that was that. Their House leadership is frighteningly reactionary and devoid of any sense of reality, and they're all in safe districts.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin recently said that the GOP needs a CAP; they need their own version of the DLC, if they're to get anywhere. With Huntsman neutralized, Crist stuck in his glass closet, Palin and Jindal's premature national debuts have hampered options for the immediate future; the bufoonish turn of Steele as Chairman is even worse. Tied to the fact that the public face of the GOP is Cheney and Gingrich, who have their own agendas ahead of the party suggests that a lagging, weird, back to the future time for the GOP will hang in for a while.

To make matters worse, 2012 in Iowa will be the first year that gay marriage could be repealed; that'll draw out the rather less pleasant faction of the GOP. It's possible that the candidate in 2012 is someone we haven't met yet, some governor who'll win in 2010 and have a good two years, but I doubt it; I'm inclined to believe that we'll get one of those teabagging governors on top.

I think the first time the GOP has a really solid chance at a reset would be 2016, when John Huntsman comes home from China and runs as the moderate (pro-civil union, pro-hate crimes, pro-title VII, pro-choice) post partisan figure with the foreign policy experience to take us all through this dangerous world. And what happens then depends on if Biden is still VP or if the Dems have an open primary, or there's an heir apparent.

Even so, the electorate of 2016 will be mroe racially diverse, more college educated, more pro-gay, and less white evangelical Christian. Barring some sort of blue fairy event, the GOP has a long and cold sucking wilderness to go into; it took the Democrats 40 years to effectively reorganize after 1968, and it could take the GOP as long.

Hmm. One thing I haven't seen people comment on, as they discuss concern about the demise of the GOP that seems awfully remniscent of discussions of the Democrats in 2004, is the examples of New York and New Jersey. Both liberal states, yet both are going to end up with Democratic governors fairly soon.

I recognize a longstanding tradition of everyone ignoring New Jersey, but seriously. There's eight and a half million of us, and we are at least as liberal, if not moreso, than California. President Christie down the road?

"To make matters worse, 2012 in Iowa will be the first year that gay marriage could be repealed; that'll draw out the rather less pleasant faction of the GOP."

Eh, I wouldn't worry overmuch. In even 2008, we had Romney and Giuliani who both supported civil unions, no?

I'm not sure how much of an issue this will be in 2012. Either you'll have a repeal of the DoMA's aspect which doesn't give same-sex civil unions and marriages the same rights at a federal level, so this will be a moot point, since a constitutional amendment is gonna be impossible.

Or, after four years of Obama, you won't have that, and the gay community will be so fed up with the guy that they won't be supporting him. And if that's the case, then the Republican stance will be... "Like President Obama, I do not support federal recognition of gay marriage."

So I wouldn't anticipate this being a decisive issue.

Mind, I'm also less confident in the economy coming around. And while it is true that the GOP won't win on a platform of fiscal conservatism during a Depression (Usually. It seems to get an awful lot of traction right now...), Huckabee's economic populism could do alright.

Wow, if it's up to us to save the Republican Party, then I'd better be more specific about the problems!

Everybody knows that the Republicans are a coalition of a bunch of factions that don't like each other much. (Imagine trying to get gay libertarian Andrew Sullivan-quoting Web entrepreneurs and bond traders in the same tent with the Christers they despise.*) One common breakdown is DefCons, FisCons, and SoCons**.

What keeps them together, in good times, is that they can get what they want from each other: support for a strong military, financial restraint (or at least restraint of potentially cancerous entitlement programs, and tax cuts), and protection of their values from coastal elites. However, these aren't good times, and everyone is looking askance at their coalition partners.

Implicit in the deal above is that each group can deliver on things everyone wants, i.e. they know how to protect and strengthen America, to grow the economy, and to maintain a good society. Now, Republican foot soldiers are muttering things like "We're destroying the military while mortgaging our future to the Chinese", "How could the Democrats be any worse than these Republicans? They have no sense of financial restraint at all"***, and "Yes, they're big on protecting marriage, but we're worse off financially, year after year".

In this environment, the leaders of each faction, and of the party as a whole, have little choice but preach their various gospels as hard as they can. Which is a too-long leadup to saying that Luke is basically right when he says that the Republican Party is "ideologically brittle", and that it probably won't be able to seriously consider any new ideas until it starts getting traction back. The good news**** is that this will start to happen soon in the normal course of events; the Obama people have had some seriously overheated expectations and some won't come true.

So what will the new Republicanism look like?*****

Policy is the superstructure; values, fears, and aspirations are the foundations. The authors of the new vision will be commited to the core values of the three Cons, among others. So they will be patriotic and pro-American, financially prudent and small-government, and pro-heartland and traditional values, even while they reshape what those things mean.

This is of course rhetoric, but it isn't just rhetoric. There are real and deep questions involved here such as "Is being an American something to be proud of, ashamed of, or indifferent to?" "How important is upward mobility compared to economic security?" "What is the proper balance between letting children be brought up according to the values of their parents and seeing that they are educated in the values of the (much) wider community?".

What kind of new narrative will they shape******? If it were me, I'd work with slogans like "The economy is a national security issue", "No more jobless recovery!", "Empowering people to do what is right", and "Building the future of America". Then...

But this comment is too long already.

*Yes, these people do exist. BTW, I know that the Democrats are notoriously a party of factions, but are there any two groups on your side that dislike each other this much?

**Like other things, these types are rarely found pure in a natural state. Hey, this is a comment on a blog post.

***They used to say that. Now they expect the collapse of civilization next week at the latest.

****Or the bad news, depending.

*****If I really knew the answer to this, I'd start my own blog, at least.

******See last footnote.

"Yes, these people do exist. BTW, I know that the Democrats are notoriously a party of factions, but are there any two groups on your side that dislike each other this much?"

---No, probably not. This is a very good point.

If I may, one problem with the coalition that you describe is that from the outside the FisCons seem to break into three factions:

(1) Real economic conservatives. These are people with whom I may disagree, but they may be right and I may be wrong. Among semi-public figures, Megan McArdle, Bruce Bartlett and Andrew Sullivan, probably Ross Douthat, plus others, including lots of brilliant economists. Many of these people, of course, no longer support the GOP, although I don't think they're really comfortable with the Democratic Party either. (Nelson and Bayh immediately come to mind as elected Democrats who would fall into Group 1.)

(2) Fantasy economic conservatives, aka "the Club for Growth." Supply-side tax-cuts-uber-alles types. Limbaugh when he opines on economics. The GOP's problem is that Group 2 seems to have either muzzled or driven out Group 1.

Of course there is a third group which uses Group 2 but isn't really part of it:

(3) Doctrinnaire libertarians, drown-government-in-the-bathroom types. These people know that Group 2's beliefs are completely incoherent, but lend their support to them because they know that their own preferences, honestly stated, would lose elections. I suppose they must also believe in the "starve the beast" theory, or else they'd view Group 2 as a danger rather than a help.

So, two questions. First, do the divisions within the FisCons look the same from your end?

Second, how do can the GOP will ultimately resolve the contradictions inside one of the party's three ideological factions? It's a problem because as long as Group 2 is dominant, any sustained period of Republican control will most-likely result in economic failure. (Rule by Group 1, conversely, would lead to a government that doesn't do what I would want it to do, but that could very well be a good and popular thing for the country.)

Sorry this is late. Annoying computer virus.

"First, do the divisions within the FisCons look the same from your end?"

Yeah, pretty much. Caveat: I don't pay any more attention to some of these people than I have to.

"...how can the GOP ultimately resolve the
contradictions inside one of the party's three ideological factions?"

Lots of ways to answer that question.

At one level: well, how do the Democrats reconcile the ideological differences between say CodePink and the mainstream?

At another, how will things shake out this time? I don't know. The whole point of this discussion is that the Republican Party is lacking a center: no elder statesmen untainted by the Bush era and weak solidarity between the factions. (And - I am starting to suspect - a generational shift, so that even the leaders of factions are starting to wonder when they will suddenly discover that they have become elder statesmen.) I tend to agree with the other commenters that the rise of a new leader and the creation of a
new center will be different pieces of the same process.

What you're really asking, of course, is will the new Republican center be dominated by dangerous kooks.

I doubt it. I'd say the economics side of the party platform got a free ride on character issues and general prosperity in 2000, and on national security in 2004. In '10, '12, and '14, at least, the economics will be very carefully scrutinized, not just by independents but also by DefCons and SoCons. We're all more sympathetic to your Group 2 than you are - we are all some kind of conservative, after all - but we've also been waiting for 25 years for the wealth to start trickling down. So probably your Group 1 is in charge and 2 gets lip service.

One of the many wild cards, of course, is how much anger, frustration, resentment, and despair out there in the general population for right-wing populists to work with.

Can I ask you a question in return?

You probably know more than 999 out of a thousand people about economic growth. What should the United States do to create sustained economic growth for say the next twenty years? It's a bigger question than the ones you asked, but I would be very interested in your answer.


Scott: it would be a grave mistake to ignore New Jersey. After all, it separates Philadelphia from New York.

David: Thoughtful response. I understand you're point about being more sympathetic to the "fantasy economic conservatives." The Democratic equivalent would be people like Naomi Klein. They believe nonsensical things, but you know that their heart is in the right place, and so you don't react as strongly to the nonsense as would, say, a conservative. We're liberals, after all.

The problem for the GOP, I think, is that the Code Pink and Naomi Klein factions are pretty far outside the party's mainstream. Nor do the Democrats have an openly Marxist socialist wing, the way the Republicans have a group of outright Randian libertarians.

It used to be a strength for the Republicans that the American political spectrum has become (since the late 1970s) oddly truncated on the left side. And sometimes, that is a help ... take the way the health care debate is being conducted without single-payer (let alone V.A.-for-everyone style socialism) on the table. That will lead to a more conservative compromise than would have happened otherwise.

But in more general terms, the fact that the political spectrum among elected officials and opinion leaders is more leftward-truncated than the opinion spectrum of the American electorate is causing a problem for the GOP coalition. For whatever reason, the "left" party has had success in marginalizing its wingnuts, while the "right" party has not.

Of course, the basic assumption here is that the political spectrum is more leftward-truncated among the political leadership of both parties than it is among the general population. That assumption could be wrong.

What do you think?

I may be wrong about this, because it's not my party, but...

My understanding is that the Democrats marginalized their relatively far-left wing in the '80's and '90's, rather painfully, after it became obvious that they were no help in winning elections. This would imply that your basic assumption is wrong.

(It also raises the question of how meaningful "far-left" is. Where do you place Dennis Kucinich, for example? Left economics in service of small-c conservativism?)

And in more general terms, I have a hard time responding to "the fact that the political spectrum among elected officials and opinion leaders is more leftward-truncated than the opinion spectrum of the American electorate is causing a problem for the GOP coalition" because I'm not sure exactly what kind of problem you mean.

The punditocracy disses us? Hand me a Band-Aid...no, the small ones.

Some people - well-educated moderates? - might be reluctant to associate themselves with Republicans because of how badly we did last time? These people probably won't - and shouldn't - consider us until we have something new and different to show them. And I'm confident that soon we will.

The Republicans won't be able to select a candidate who will provide that something new and different because they are in thrall to the Club for Growth and the disco-era Reagan synthesis? The possibility exists, but I don't think it'll happen. (See upthread.) If I'm wrong in the short term, the voters will tell us so.

Public debate on policy options is royally &%%$+*%ed? True, but ISTM that's a different question.

Trivia - this is the third time in a row I've tried to add a comment while you were posting. Odds?

Odds are small, I think.

These are three (and one-half) good points. Let me give a few brief thoughts.

The GOP's difficulty is that the grounds of social issues is shifting under them, while their economic crazies are inside the tent. That has the joint effect of pulling Democrats to the right --- and that might not be a bad thing, from a conservative point of view --- but also makes it impossible for the GOP to govern effectively.

So dissing by the punditocracy isn't a problem, inasmuch as having the punditocracy give props to Liz Cheney while (say) Dennis Kucinich is marginalized. That pulls the center of the debate to the right (good) but makes Republicans look a little rabid (bad).

In addition, the punditocracy is rightward-leaning in effect: consider the data on conservative appearances on the Sunday talk shows versus liberal ones, or the strange calls for bipartisanship as a good thing in-and-of-itself. With Democrats in power, that's functionally conservative; when the positions were reversed the effect was the opposite. But that didn't hurt the Democrats as much, because not only could a Democrat easily disavow Michael Moore and Naomi Klein ... nobody ever really asked them to because nobody thought they were inside the party.

Similarly, it is a problem when really really good conservative academics who are much much smarter than I am (Holtz-Eakin or Mankiw come to mind) have to pretend to believe silly things in order to have influence within their party. No?

Am I being clear? My posts and comments are always pretty dashed out, which can make them very muddled.

Historically, I'm not sure that it's true that the Democrats marginalized their economically leftward wings in the 1990s. That happened far earlier. For example, just as it is uncomfortable for liberals to admit that Nixon (aka, the Evil One) favored several liberal initiatives, it is also uncomfortable for conservatives to admit that James Earl Carter was a very fiscally-responsible president: deficits were small and sustainable. (A similar point applies to the defense buildup that began on his watch.) Clinton botched the politics of the health care plan completely, getting Democrats to stick their necks out and then leaving them in the lurch, but it was Democratic reluctance what kept him far away from single-payer.

More contemporaneously, opinion polling shows more public sympathy for (say) tax hikes and real socialized medicine than the leaders of either party will admit.

This isn't to paint the Democrats as some sort of enlightened centrist party; it is just to say that its socialist-protectionist wing has been long neutered.

Much of the Democrats' problem stemmed from, I think, three things. One, the GOP tapped into the zeitgeist much better. Take, for example, welfare reform, opposition to which was a "left" position that managed to put its proponents on the losing side of almost every debate, from the value of personal responsibility (a bad thing to be against in general) to disguised racial animus (a good thing to be against in general). Cutting the pre-1980 marginal income tax rates was another ... although that could have been accomplished in a revenue-neutral way akin to the 1986 reform rather than the weird blunderbuss that was actually used.

Two, with the exception of health care, much of the social democratic agenda in the country had been accomplished. That made the Democrats into a small-c party that simply couldn't react well to new policy challenges.

Three, Democrats managed to be tarred by crazies that weren't inside the party. (Nixonland is great on this tip: the 1968 and '72 conventions boggle the mind as crappy politics.) Then, of course,the image-politics around "social issues" and national security worked against them.

The upshot was that while the "New Democrats" did need to reposition the party, it seems that their job was much easier than the one currently facing the GOP.

Just to be clear, I think I agree with your penultimate point, and I hope you're right about the third.

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