Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Future of the GOP, part 2

Last week I posited some post-election thoughts about the future of the GOP. I suggested that Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin had the potential to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. Yesterday it was reported that Romney has said that it is unlikely he will run for office again. It was also reported that Palin is quite open to seeking the presidency in the future.

There are others that are now seeing potential opportunities. While Palin energized parts of the GOP base, she is nowhere near being an invincible figure. And while anyone out there might be in the ramp-up stages of running a four-year campaign, a lot can change in four years. There will likely be some fresh faces on the scene by then.

But there is a bigger issue to consider. As I have said previously, both major parties are large conglomerations of various groups. The GOP has long had its moderate and traditionalist divisions. Despite its serious troubles, the moderate wing — in charge since the 1964 Goldwater rout — successfully fought off a challenge by traditionalist Ronald Reagan in 1976. They were caught off guard when their guy, George H.W. Bush, lost the GOP nomination to Reagan in 1980.

Although the traditionalist conservative movement was ascendant at the time, Reagan still knew he needed the moderates’ support, so he ended up selecting Bush as his running mate. Traditionalist conservatives supported Bush when he sought to succeed Reagan eight years later. But many of them deserted him after one term of moderate policies.

Although the White House was lost in 1992, traditionalists continued to ascend, finally capturing Congress in 1994. But they made many compromises to maintain control of Congress and to bring George W. Bush to power in 2000, and then keep him there in 2004. Still, since the heady days of 1994 traditionalists have succeeded in driving many moderates from the party to the point that Republicans control almost nothing in the Northeast and very little on the West Coast.

Moderate Republican commentator David Brooks whines here that the mantra about the GOP being insufficiently conservative is going to win out in the near term. He cites three reasons for this: 1) Most of the moderate Congressional Republicans are already gone; 2) “Traditionalists have the institutions,” while moderates have none; and 3) “Traditionalists own the conservative mythology.” To explain this third point, Brooks writes:
“Members of the conservative Old Guard see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into belly of the liberal elite. In this narrative, anybody who deviates toward the center, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward, and a sellout.”
Brooks says that this will lead to “crushing dissent, purging deviationists and enforcing doctrinal purity.” But he suggests that history is ultimately on the side of the moderates. He prophesies that after the GOP veers to the right and suffers more defeats, moderates “will build new institutions, new structures and new ideas, and the cycle of conservative ascendance will begin again.”

Brooks has some valid points. Polling shows (see Politico report) that some demographic groups that once aligned with the GOP have strongly shifted to the Democrats. It is suggested that the changing face of the country indicates decreasing GOP appeal to the nation’s largest ascendant groups. Brooks says that the GOP must “pay attention to the way the country has changed.” He calls for “the old G.O.P. priorities … to be modernized for new conditions.”

Traditionalists would retort that this is what got the GOP in trouble in the first place. Although Brooks argues that “American voters will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government,” when the GOP gave up on standing for limited government it lost its most important element of brand differentiation. Much of what Brooks calls “conservative” is in the same vein as G.W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which is code for big government with GOP support. Frankly, those that approve of big government policies will support Democrats over Republicans that want to act like Democrat-lites. Why go for the imitation when you can have the real thing?

To complicate matters further, there are vast differences between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. Some social conservatives find moderate fiscal policies quite to their liking, while some fiscal conservatives find libertarian social concepts quite appealing. Thus, it is difficult to divide Republicans neatly into two groups.

Republicans should (and must at some point) discuss and debate what it means to be a Republican and how to attract others to those ideals. Brooks argues for a pragmatic approach. In his mind, it is the only rational way forward. He relegates those that sincerely believe in their conservative principles to the dustbin of history.

Our nation does not like to veer too far away from the center. It may be center-left or center-right, but it is somewhere close to the center. Obama had to run to the center on economic and national security issues to win. McCain had to run to the center to garner as many votes as he did. Clinton discovered in 1994 that governing too far to the left of center had serious political ramifications. Still, voters expect some actual brand differentiation so that they have an actual choice.

However, if traditionalist conservatives believe they are right that the GOP needs to move more to the right, they need to ask themselves a few questions. Where are all those strong conservatives going to come from that will win and hold congressional seats in the coastal states and in the population centers? Will voters flock to them simply because they are conservative? (Heck, for that matter, where are the strong conservative Utah senators going to come from? Utahns obviously don’t want conservative US Senators.) The GOP hasn’t just shed moderate seats. Why have some strong GOP conservatives like Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) lost during the past dozen years if moving to the right is the right way to go?

The Wall Street Journal posted a symposium of various thoughts on the future of the GOP. Danny Vargas says that the party must appeal to minorities. Richard Land reminds that Evangelicals that value life and family tend to vote for their values over their party, so the GOP must be strong on those values. Michael Steele calls for the party to positively redefine itself by what it is for rather than by what it is against. Henry Olsen asks the party to focus on its principles of freedom and responsibility rather than focusing on specific policies, citing Reagan as the model for this. Peter Robinson notes that Hispanics must be courted, since they align much more closely with Republican principles than with Democratic ideals.

Everyone seems to be in full agreement that the GOP needs to redefine itself in a way that appeals to voters. But there is a lot of disagreement about how to achieve this. There will be a lot of squabbling among factions. Efforts by factions to strong arm others will meet with resistance and perhaps defection. There is no clear leader on the horizon to lead the party out of the wilderness. The optimistic view is to say that the GOP has many opportunities available right now.

3 comments:

David said...

I think I would be identified as a traditionalist - my first reaction to Brooks' lament that traditionalists would carry the day in the short term was to hope they could carry the party in the long term. The more I think about it though, I think that the party does not need to move to the right so much as be authentic. The party talks to the right and acts to the left (not to the left of the spectrum so much as glaringly left of their own rhetoric).

I think that the Republican party needs to stand for something and be consistent. They may stand for something unpopular and have to redefine their stance until they can win elections again, but I don't think they'll ever challenge the Democrats at the national level until voters believe they can trust them to do what they say.

rmwarnick said...

Romney-Palin in 2012. Gingrich would be good, too. Oh, yeah.

Reach Upward said...

Richard, thanks, but, um ....

David, the authenticity thing has definitely been a problem for the GOP.

Here's something else to chew on. The Democrats have a number of proud progressives in Congress (particularly in the Senate) that have been fairly effective at pushing the progressive agenda -- some of them for years. The Republicans have some conservatives in Congress, but which of them has actually been effective at moving forward any sincerely conservative legislation?

The last significant piece of conservative legislation came out of Congress in 1996. That was welfare reform. And it was passed with a Democratic president. When the GOP Congress had a Republican president, it passed which significant conservative pieces of legislation? I hear crickets chirping.