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?