Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The GOP on the Ropes

“Voters are tired of buying a GOP package and finding a big-government liberal agenda inside.” —Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK)

In 675 words, Sen. Tom Coburn does a smack down on Bushian “compassionate conservatism” in this WSJ op-ed piece. Coburn’s concise choice of wording makes for a brief article that is so full of quotable commentary that the whole thing bears reading.

It seems that everyone nowadays is acknowledging that the GOP brand has been badly damaged. Coburn derides some of the proposed solutions as more or less putting makeup on a pig. “What we need is not new advertising, but truth in advertising.”

Coburn writes that “conservatives are conservatives because our policies promote deliverance from poverty rather than dependence on government.” The Oklahoma senator is also not afraid of mixing religion into his commentary, ostensibly because that was the vehicle for selling compassionate conservatism in the first place.

“Compassionate conservatism's … implicit claim that charity or compassion translates into a particular style of activist government involving massive spending increases and entitlement expansion – was its undoing. Common sense and the Scriptures show that true giving and compassion require sacrifice by the giver. This is why Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell his possessions, not his neighbor's possessions. Spending other people's money is not compassionate.”
Coburn’s proposed solutions are sure to evoke squeamishness among the ranks of congressional Republicans. Most of them probably can’t even imagine “[refusing] to accept any new spending whatsoever, including for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, until Congress does its job of eliminating wasteful spending.” Coburn’s office “has identified $300 billion in annual waste.”

Of course, one man’s waste is another man’s necessity. And congressional Republicans will say that they are afraid of being rejected by voters for such a tough spending stance. I guess they think that the outcome of the 2006 midterm elections and their current dismal prospects for this November are just peachy. Their real fear is being cut off from K-Street money.

The trade of small government principles for the goal of a governing majority has produced a Democrat-Lite party that the majority of voters have rejected. The majority is gone, and Coburn says there’s no chance of getting it back until the party behaves “like Republicans.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) sounds like a somewhat more cautious version of Coburn in this WSJ interview. He basically says that he’s having a lot of difficulty getting House Republicans to line up behind the small government banner.

After reading the interview, it’s easy to understand the frustration of commenter Joe Dantone, who writes (here), “Your article clearly makes the point that John Boehner is a good man, but not the right man. There is a visible need for leadership in the upper reaches of the party and Congressman Boehner is not a leader.”

Look, it took years for the GOP to get itself into its current mess. The party actively recruited non-conservatives in many districts for years. Now they are stuck with most of those people. The voters are doing the favor of rejecting some of them (in favor of conservative Democrats), but the party has a stand-by-your-man policy that makes it support incumbents regardless of how far they have strayed from Republican principles. This means that the party could end up being hitched up with some very un-conservative GOP senators and representatives for many years to come.

The quest for party ideological purity has had only marginal success in American politics. But the GOP has strayed so far from its core principles that the party no longer knows what it stands for. There is no general understanding of why the party exists other than simply not to be called Democrats. Why should voters trust such a party with their votes?

Rep. Boehner is correct when he says that hoping to win by waiting for Democrats to falter is a lousy strategy. He stresses that the GOP must “earn back the majority.” But that takes two things: a clear message from the top and a lot of work by the party at the ground level to elect real conservatives. I’m not sure that either of these things is presently happening.


Anonymous said...

I think that the "Democrat-lite" label understates the problem. We're not talking about "Republicans - with all the government flavor of Democrats but delivered with 30% less government." It's more like "Republicans are the 295 lb offensive lineman opposing the 300 lb defensive lineman representing the Democrats."

Why should anyone be remotely surprised that voters prefer the democrat who claims to be a Democrat over the democrat who claims to be Republican? (Except here in Utah where we don't care who we vote for so long as they have an (R) on the ballot by their name.)

Charles D said...

What conservatives have done is mis-define "big government". When they use the term, they refer to a government which avoids any action that may help Americans improve their lives but embraces any action by which government can intrude in their private lives, eavesdrop on their conversations, imprison them without charge, and send their children to die for a middle-aged chickenhawk's fantasy about world domination.

Their theology is also misguided. It requires quite a logical twist to believe that Jesus would demand people avoid using methods that would alleviate the suffering of their neighbors simply because those methods violate one's political ideology. The Good Samaritan story is rather useful in this context.

For Republicans, "earning back the majority" will require another several years of miseducating and misinforming the electorate, revising history, and appealing to the baser instincts of voters. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has revealed the true agenda of conservatism, and the utter failure of its policy prescriptions. Even with the help of the media and the K street spin machine, it will take a few years for voters to forget.

Anonymous said...

I love Tom Coburn. I am tempted to write him in for President in November... But after reading his article it seems that he is supporting Sen. McCain which is rather interesting because I see McCain as being the Republican that his is criticizing in his op-ed piece. I will definitely have to investigate McCain some more, especially with this endorsement from Coburn.

Cameron said...

"The Good Samaritan story is rather useful in this context."

Indeed. What "ideology" did the Good Samaritan portray? He came across someone in need and personally saw him to lodging and care.

Charles D said...

Exactly Cameron. Let's recast the Samaritan story a bit.

Suppose instead of one traveler lying bleeding beside the road there are hundreds of them. First a Libertarian walks by and says that there will no doubt be a market solution to this distress and goes on down the road. Then a conservative passes by and decides that he will provide a tax incentive to any company that will come along and provide some help, but doesn't stick around to see if that works. They both feel compassion for the bleeding folks but are unable to provide meaningful help on their own and just don't believe in "big government".

Then the liberal comes by and calls the local government to come in and help them, and stays there until they do. Which of these was a neighbor to the bleeding masses?

Anonymous said...

I have to respond to Democracy Lover. You have got to be kidding me. The libertarian and the conservative would both start up a non-profit (or donate to one) that would help them.

I think that you have complete miscast the conservative movement. It has been shown that conservative donate more to charity than liberals. We do so because we know it is our privilege and duty to help those in need.

Charles D said...

Sometimes charity is simply not enough. We don't have a charity large enough to handle all the health care needs of the 47 million uninsured Americans and the unaffordable health care needs of the millions more who are uninsured. Charities can put bandages on the suffering people, but they can't solve the underlying systemic problems that cause them to suffer in the first place.

There is a fundamental difference in outlook here. Liberals see the government as an instrument of the people that can and should work to make life better for all its citizens. We don't have to take the 2nd best option of a non-profit, we know we can all work together through our democratic government to help one another.

Cameron said...

Way to go DL, you've taken the "taking personal responsibility for your neighbor" story of the Good Samaritan and "recast" it as a plug for government.

If you want to make the argument for government programs, go for it. But don't try to twist Biblical stories you don't believe in to prove your point.

Charles D said...

I don't see the Good Samaritan story as a parable of personal responsibility. Certainly that is a component of the parable's message but not its central point.

Jesus was asked the question "Who is my neighbor?", and the parable convinced his interlocutor to respond "The one who treated him with mercy". Jesus was saying that the point is to be merciful, to "love your neighbor as yourself". How do you show mercy and love to your neighbor by avoiding methods of aiding your fellow man because they contradict your political views?

It's like the old adage about teaching a man to fish vs. giving him fish. If I can address the underlying systemic cause of a person's distress through effective government action, that is better than donating a few thousand to a charity that will merely alleviate their suffering for a brief time.

By the way, I don't disbelieve Jesus' existence or the validity of his teachings, and I have spent a great deal of time studying the Bible.