Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reinventing the Republican Party - "And Never the Twain Shall Meet"

A significant number of Republicans have renewed their argument for a modest reinvention of the Republican Party, that it needs to move away from social conservatism, tone down its anti-immigrant rhetoric, cast off the remnants of the southern strategy, and emphasize broadly accepted conservative principles: personal responsibility, independence, hard work, and the like. That appears to be the vision of David Brooks, although he has to distort history in order to try to lay claim to those values as somehow being Republican. It has been somewhat amusing to see how many conservatives now claim to have "always argued" in favor of such a transformation of the party, never mind that before the election most never raised the argument in more than a whisper and many were at times part of what they're now describing as the problem.

Here's the thing: If the Republican Party can in fact transform itself, if it can convince America "We're no longer interested in your bedrooms. We want to be the party that helps everybody get a reasonably equal start in life, and give everybody the opportunity to advance, but not the party that subsidizes irresponsibility. No more 'trickle down' or 'laffer curves', we are going to focus on building the economy based upon sound principles. No more anti-science arguments or measures, that stuff is an artifact of the past. We're going to maintain a strong military, but will refrain from adventurism and have no interest in empire. We're going to stick to free market principles, we're going to push for small government, we're going to avoid trying to solve society's problems through laws and regulations, but we are advocates of good governance, and for government to be there when we need it," it will be in a powerful position in future elections. I could see that type of party pulling 55-60% of the vote.

The difficulty the Republican Party faces is two-fold. First, Members of Congress are going to be focused principally upon their own needs and futures, not what might benefit the party as a whole. They will want to avoid primary challenges from the right. It will be difficult for the Republican Party to transform itself when a significant core of its elected representatives refuse to play along. Second, the presidential primary process requires the party's candidate to run a gauntlet that poses similar issues along the way - if a candidate alienates the religious right, a competitor who by all right should be laughed out of the room can become a viable alternative for the nomination.

That is to say, a serious reform effort is going to be painful. First, when you tell your wealthy contributors, "How about we try to give you 95% of what you want instead of 100%," those contributors are apt to say, "Then what makes you different from the other party?" And if you tell the religious right, "We're no longer going to go to the wall for you on moral issues," even if at some level the voters at issue were already skeptical of your sincerity, you risk that they will decline to show up at the polls or will back a third party candidate.

Meanwhile, you aren't actually that far into the hole. Despite all of the flaws of your party, its platform, the nomination process and your presidential candidate, you came very close to winning. Despite the problems caused by the Tea Party and some candidates who no sensible person would want associated with the party, you have a solid majority in the House of Representatives and can correct your mistakes in the Senate races without drastic action. Further, things cycle - no party stays in power indefinitely and it may be "your time" as soon as four years from now. Why change?

Perhaps more than that, if the price of not changing is that you lose a few more elections before facing the music, whereas the price of facing the music now is that you lose a few elections while reinventing the party, is there an actual benefit in attempting a dramatic transformation instead of a less coordinated evolutionary process going forward? Isn't it better to keep things pretty much the way they are, to try to win the next few elections, than to write them off in the name of a dramatic experiment that guarantees that some Members of Congress will lose their seats and at best will make a presidential candidate marginally more competitive four years from now?

Is it possible to dramatically transform the Republican Party without alienating core elements of both its base and its deep-pocketed supporters? I doubt it. And as much as some of the more level heads in the party can see the need, even describe a path, I think they're going to receive a lot of push-back. At best, "Maybe we can run a candidate who says all of those nice things, while reassuring the base and our donors that we still have their backs?" If it almost worked with Mitt Romney, might it not work with the next candidate?

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