Friday, May 01, 2009

The GOP Dilemma

As a follow-up to my last post and related comments, I found WSJ articles by Kimberly Strassel and Peggy Noonan interesting. Both agree that the departure from the GOP of Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) is generating a lot of introspection among Republicans. This is not because Specter was a great Republican, but because this relatively small change has pushed the national GOP to the precipice of political irrelevance.

While a debate about what it means to be Republican is both useful and essential, “Mr. Specter,” writes Strassel, “is a very unhealthy basis on which to be having what might otherwise be a healthy debate. … The Pennsylvanian has only ever been purely ideological on one issue: the polls.” Noonan contends, “It is fine to dismiss Mr. Specter as an opportunist, but opportunists tell you something: which side is winning. That's the side they want to be on.”

Strassel particularly takes on Republican ‘moderates’ like Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) that talk airily about some undefined form of “centrism,” while supporting everything put up by GOP opponents. Strassel contrasts this with others that have taken principled stands against their party’s position on various issues. Such disagreements can often be tolerated. But Strassel suggests that Republicans that demonstrate by their actions that they agree with very little of the party’s principles cause more harm than good.

Noonan writes, “A great party needs give. It must be expansive and summoning. It needs to say, "Join me." … A great party cannot live by constantly subtracting, by removing or shunning those who are not faithful to every aspect of its beliefs….” This sounds good, but I’m not sure it’s as accurate as Noonan suggests. Or at least, I’m not sure that voting out (or threatening to vote out) a single senator in a primary election amounts to what Noonan is saying it does.

The Specter situation is similar to the conditions Sen. Lieberman ([I]D-CT) faced back in 2006. Lieberman was turned upon by the party establishment and was rejected by his party’s primary voters. Republicans crowed that the Lieberman expulsion would harm Democrats. Can anybody point me to evidence of that harm?

Both Strassel and Noonan call for the GOP to define its principles. “The party,” writes Strassel, “is currently in trouble because the party lost its principles. Overspending, earmarks, corruption and policy drift undermined Republican claims to be the party of reform. … [T]he GOP will never win running as a less enthusiastic version of big-government Democrats. … [T]he party must reclaim its mantle of the party of limited government and entrepreneurship.”

Noonan calls for party principles to include at least “a strong defense, … a less demanding and intrusive government, … [and] a natural affection and respect for tradition and for life….” Due to the party’s recent support of measures antithetical to some of these principles, contends Noonan, it “will take them a while to seem credible again.”

Credibility is the missing link. This is precisely what many Republicans are clamoring for in their own way. While Noonan calls for the welcoming of anyone that says they are Republican, it should be obvious that accepting too many that don’t actually buy into party principles helped create the credibility crisis in which the GOP finds itself today.

As I have said before, major political parties are made up of factions that often strongly disagree on various issues. Noonan says that it is extremely rare that someone comes along that can solidly unify those factions as did FDR and Reagan, so that the GOP should move ahead without looking for such a savior. It occurs to me, however, that the Democratic Party is currently experiencing such a rare moment with President Obama.

Noonan accurately lists the challenges facing the GOP, including “younger voters who seem embarrassed to be associated with them, an aging and contracting base and, perhaps most ominously, what appears to be a new national openness to a redefinition of the relationship between the government and the governed.”

The generational shift Noonan mentions may be a much greater issue than the GOP’s apparent lack of credibility — just as generational shift played a big role in the GOP coming to power in the 80s and 90s. After all, politicians are by definition among the least credible humans on earth, regardless of party affiliation. If this is the case, perhaps the best the GOP can do is to position itself to be ready to catch the next generational shift wave that comes along.

Regardless of the reasons for current conditions and what the future holds, it would certainly do the GOP well to restore some sense of credibility. The party should welcome even those that only marginally agree, but before that can happen in a healthy manner the party has to nail down precisely what its basic principles are. Then a significant core of party members has to unwaveringly buy into those principles.

As Noonan says, this kind of work takes a long time. How can something like this happen without a strong leader? It has to begin among the lowest levels and percolate its way up. This will be a painstaking process. But if the welcoming process Noonan touts starts before this point, the party will again be blown about like a ship without a rudder.

So, the solution for the GOP is to develop a strong set of core principles and to welcome any that are willing to sail under that banner. But it has to happen in that order or it won’t happen at all. Why would anyone want to be aligned with a party that basically stands for nothing more than not being registered Democrats?

7 comments:

rmwarnick said...

I am amazed by the rapidity with which the Republicans have achieved irrelevance. A little over two years ago, Democrats had zero power in Washington. The situation has completely reversed.

This is not the two-party system we learned about in school, where the one party acts as a check on the excesses of the other and both cooperate on major legislation and foreign policy. Now it's winner-take-all hyper-partisanship.

The GOP needs to reinvent itself or we're doomed to one-party rule.

Reach Upward said...

Amen.

Reach Upward said...

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) writes in this WSJ op-ed, "Moderate and liberal Republicans who think a South Carolina conservative like me has too much influence are right!"

He calls for the GOP to rally around freedom, devolving centralized power to state and local governments and to individuals themselves. That way, he says, "Northeastern Republicans, Western Republicans, Southern Republicans, and Midwestern Republicans can define their own brands of Republicanism."

DeMint says that Republicanism is not about imposing "a rigid, uniform agenda on all Americans." It "is about choice -- in education, health care, energy and more. It's OK if those choices look different in South Carolina, Maine and California."

While allowing for a broad variety of viewpoints within the party, DeMint (like Noonan and Strassel) argues for strong principles. But his suggested principles are pretty basic. "The federal government is too big, takes too much of our money, and makes too many of our decisions. If Republicans can't agree on that, elections are the least of our problems."

DeMint makes a good argument. But the battle against a centralized approach is going to be a lot harder than he suggests. There are plenty of Republicans that would love to force a centralized approach to many matters, as long as that approach forces people to act the way they desire.

I have been thinking about Noonan's comment about "a new national openness to a redefinition of the relationship between the government and the governed." I'm not so sure that this openness is so new. Surely this is the reason that the GOP ended up nominating GWB for the position of Compassionate Conservative in Chief in 2000. I think that the shift Noonan fears has actually been with us for some time.

Despite this fact, voters have shown that they don't want a GOP that is in "a bidding war with Democrats," as DeMint writes. They want a GOP that is an actual alternative. I think Richard is correct when he suggests that two strong parties provides for better government than one strong and one weak party.

Democracy Lover said...

I think it's interesting to contrast the "RINO" positions of Republican outliers like Collins and (previously) Specter to those of comparable Democrats.

Progressive Punch which obviously rates high for progressive voting records and low for conservative ones, gives Specter a 36.92% ranking #60 out of 99. Collins is #61. They are the least conservative Republicans. But what about the most conservative Democrats? Moving up (that would be to the left) from Specter we have Ben Nelson (D-NE), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Max Baucus (D-MT), etc. Nelson and Hagan particularly, have voting records much like that of Specter and Collins.

The problem the Republicans have is that they have had a virtually unbroken period of 28 years to demonstrate that their policy ideas and ideology can benefit the American people and they have failed. It just might be that the ideas are bad, not that they did a lousy job of selling them.

Reach Upward said...

There is a very large mushy middle among the nation's voters; about 56% by some measures (depending on where you put the break points). The rest have harder left or right attitudes.

The Senate does not really split out like this. The House is somewhat closer to this model, but still doesn't closely parallel it.

The two major parties get their ground basis in the outliers on the Right and Left. But their power is limited according to those that can be attracted from the middle.

Some regularly argue that this large middle ground provides a grand opportunity for development of a new party. After all, many democratic nations have center (or somewhat center) parties. But our two major parties have created such high barriers to entry into the national political market that I think it is unlikely that any kind of center party (with actual staying power) will arise.

It is also difficult to articulate what really drives this big mass of voters. This group has interests all over the place to the point that there is little coherence on most matters. They are generally less politically active (or interested) than those on the Left or Right, and they are not nearly as passionate about their political beliefs. I think all of this works against the development of a significant center party in the U.S.

Both Left and Right argue that the policies of the other side don't work. Both sides are absolutely convinced that their policies do work. Any evidence to the contrary is excused because their cherished ideas haven't ever been attempted in their purity.

It seems that every few years (on about a 16-year cycle, according to Michael Barone), voters turn sour on the party in power and turns to the opposing party -- not because they are enthusiastic about that party's policies, but because they are disgusted with the status quo. Whenever a switch takes place, supporters of the side in power claims that the other side's ideas have now proven to be bad. This is nothing more than ideological blather -- the kind of stuff that turns off voters in the mushy middle.

One of the biggest challenges the GOP faces is that limited government is taken as an article of faith, but it is actually only accepted by some of the factions in the party coalition. Politicians that rise to the Senate in particular (but also those in the House) invest so much into a top-down central control paradigm that they pretty much actively fight against the limited government ideal, although; they regularly spout official party rhetoric.

The political cultural system in which these politicians operate inside the DC beltway is completely antithetical to limited government. Getting enough power to limit government requires working against that very ideal. If that amount of power is ever amassed, those that wield the power have been co-opted into the system. They have long since relinquished any actual belief in limited government. And, by golly, they're not about to reduce their own power willingly. They even extend it by joining government with business concerns and labeling it 'free market' or 'limited government.'

Those that actually believe in limited government are a tiny number that are fighting an impossible battle. You can say that this is an effective repudiation of their beliefs. They will say that masses of people may reject the truth, but that doesn't alter the truth. And there you are back to the 'my ideology is right and your's is wrong no matter what' paradigm.

Democracy Lover said...

Obviously the last 8 years have not been a triumph for proponents of limited government - quite the contrary. However, as the economic downturn intensifies and the real-world results of limited government become clear, voters are likely to turn away from the philosophy in large numbers.

Limited government rests on a kind of libertarian individualism that sees the nation as a collection of individuals each pursuing their own self interest. In times of stress, people begin to realize that they are dependent upon one another and must work together to achieve security and progress. In such times, the role of government becomes closer to its ideal of being of, by and for the people.

Reach Upward said...

Are you implying that stronger collectivism in government is a fear response? That sounds strikingly similar to the complaints of some about a hawkish approach to national security.

I think that most libertarians would say that allowing people to choose according to their own incentives and motivations (i.e. freedom) creates a self organizing social and economic order that is far from perfect, but is superior in every way (including economically and morally) to any system that employs force and coercion to achieve some kind of collective good.

Many libertarians will argue that the term collective (and all of its derivatives) is simply code for enforcing the ideals of a particular group, whether that be some kind of oligarchy or a mob consisting of the majority. My personal opinion is that the libertarians take a principle founded in truth and carry it to an extreme. I am quite confident that most libertarians would take issue with my assessment.

I think that most small government conservatives are not at all against the application of government to achieve positive ends. However, they think that many of the matters we push to a national (global?) level belong at much lower levels, and some issues should be separated from government power altogether. A very few issues require a national (or even global) response, but this certainly does not apply to many of the issues being handled at federal or international levels today.

The two approaches differ both by philosophical basis and degree. In the one, individual liberty is paramount. The coercive powers of the government or the collective should be minimized as much as possible. People are free to choose associations, but should be forced into associations only at the most extreme need.

The other approach assumes that various levels of social responsibility are incumbent upon everyone in a society, but that decisions regarding those responsibilities and the use of coercive group powers should devolve to the lowest functionally effective level, allowing the individual to have the greatest opportunity for affecting decisions that concern them. The result, of course, is a great diversity of policy rather than uniformity and rigidity.

In both cases, however, the freedom of individuals is greater than under any higher level plan.