The advantage of being out of power is that it gives a political party time to think and reflect. Better yet, it gives a party the opportunity to fight, and to fight with its most serious enemy, that is, itself. And that is what is happening in the Republican Party right now, as they collectively reflect upon their plight.
And the plight is simply this: not only were they trounced, but they were trounced by a particularly weak President whose approval ratings are upside-down, who has poor leadership skills, and whose singular legislative accomplishment divided the country and has yet to be tested in practice. This is a man who was peculiarly ill-prepared for the job. He had never before held an executive position, and two years before he began to run for president, he was an obscure state legislator with an undistinguished record. More importantly, the Obama “recovery” is anemic at best. 40% of the people, at least, have not actually experienced a recovery, and the big winners were big money. And even though the unemployment numbers have dropped by a third, this seems to reflect not so much an increase in jobs (and certainly not good jobs) as a decrease in the size of the workforce. In other words, the fall in unemployment indicates not a rise in the level of the economy, but a rise in the level of despair.
So the question becomes, “If the Republicans can’t beat Obama, who can they beat?” Obviously, Something Has To Change, but what and how? The Party faithful have formed themselves into groups to discuss this question. Unfortunately, these groups resemble circular firing squads to discuss “Who should get the blame?” But when they do get down to solutions, they confront the demographic problem: the share of white voters, the most reliably Republican voters, has declined. Merely getting the majority of the white vote is not enough, not any more.
The demographic strategies fall into two camps: Whites-only (or mainly) and Hispanic Outreach. In the former camp, we find the 3% Solution and the Absent Voter strategies. The supporters of the 3% Solution note that if Romney had upped his percentage of the white vote by a mere three percentage points, from 59% to 62%, he would have won the popular vote. Aside from the fact that this merely says that if Romney had gotten more votes than Obama, he would have won, the idea that there were 3 million white voters that could have been induced to switch from Obama to Romney is suspicious on its face. But even if this strategy could have worked in the past, it is doubtful it can work in the future. The men of my generation are marching through Medicare to the grave, with or without Death Panels. Further, we did not have enough children to replace ourselves; that job we left to the immigrants. If you outsource the next generation to somebody else, you are not permitted to complain that they are growing in numbers.
If the 3% Solution is a bit far-fetched, the Absent Voter Theory is at least plausible. According to this theory, white voters, unhappy with the choices, simply stayed home, giving the election to Obama. How many absent white voters where there? Six million, according to Sean Trende, and two million according to Karl Rove. Assuming these missing voters break pretty much the same way the actual white voters did, Mr. Trende even projects that the Republicans can win all the elections between 2016 and 2040, and they can do this even if their share of the Hispanic vote declines to 10% (from its current 27%). Should they improve their Hispanic percentage to 40%, they can win until 2048, and that by comfortable electoral vote margins.
These are nice scenarios, if you are a Republican. But there are some problems. In the first place, even if the mythical six million had shown up to vote, and even if they had broken 59%-39% for Romney as did the actual white voters, Obama still would have won. After all, he out-polled Romney by 5 million votes. Further, it is not at all evident that the stay-at-homes were Republican. Romney received nearly a million more votes than McCain did in 2008, but Obama dropped by 3.6 million votes. There is certainly a plausible argument that it was Obama, and not Romney, who suffered from the stay-at-home syndrome.
Moreover, the white vote, unlike the vote in all other demographics, is not homogenous across age groups. Romney carried white voters over 30 by 60%, but could only manage a bare 51% among 18-29 year olds. The rising generation appears to be less Republican. Maybe that’s why we didn’t have so many children: we knew they were going to be Democrats.
In any case, whether one believes that the GOP needs to broaden the base, or just mine it more intensively, some policies and strategies are required to achieve the goal. Right now, the thinking seems to fall into four broad categories, which we may label The Cruz Gambit, Tea-Party Populism, The Full Rubio, and the Neo-neocons.
The Cruz Gambit: This is basically to double-down on a shut-down. Never negotiate. Ever. On anything. Stand by your principles, and leave the rest to God and the PACs. Now, whatever the intellectual arguments for this position may be, it is hard to put it in public terms without sounding like you are wearing a tin-foil hat. Of course, like all good patriots, we all hate our government, but we hate it even more when it stops functioning. As people wait for their Social Security checks and layoffs multiply, anger mounts. Rather than a strategy aimed at winning national elections, this appears to be a gambit to win Republican primaries. It is no accident, I think, that it is proposed mainly by politicians in states where the primary is equivalent to the general election. Ted Cruz managed to out-flank his extremely conservative rival on the right and didn’t have to worry about Democratic opposition in the general election. It is fairly evident that this strategy will neither broaden the base, nor mine it. But it will keep its proponents in office until they retire into rolls as Fox News pundits or industry lobbyists.
Tea-Party Populism: In a world of crony capitalism, Too Big To Fail banks, bailouts, subsidies, high welfare, and government surveillance, one has to admit that the Tea Party has a point, and may even have a plan. Broadly libertarian, they nevertheless have the opportunity to create a broad coalition that extends past party lines, and to unite dissidents across the political spectrum. Indeed, the Occupy Movement shares many of the concerns of the Tea Party, and in my visits to Zuchotti Park, I found many libertarians. Their standard-bearer, Rand Paul, has learned (unlike his father) how to pitch his ideas to an audience broader than the mere true believers, and realizes that he has to go beyond the powers in the Party and reach the people in pews.
That being said, Tea-Party populism has the same problems all “populisms” have: an inability to distinguish what is popular from “what is popular among my friends,” and a reluctance to form coalitions. An example of the first is immigration reform, which has the support of upwards of 60% of the population, but which the Tea Party finds odious, or even “un-American.” This leaves Rand Paul in a difficult situation. He has publicly supported most of what’s in the Senate’s plan, but he voted against the bill, citing border security concerns. But it is doubtful that any bill would be acceptable to his followers, and if he has to thread the needle on too many issues like this, he may end up in the public view as just another plastic politician constantly reshaped by the latest polling data and party pressures.
Further, populists have a tendency to emphasize issues which divide at the expense of those which unite. For example, a broad coalition could be built on opposition to crony capitalism, but the left wing of that coalition would, in the main, support abortion “rights” and homosexual marriage, issues both sides deem important enough to keep them from cooperating on other issues.
Add to this the Tea Party’s penchant for adulating the worst of its representatives, people like Gingrich or Palin, and you have a movement of great potential but little lasting effect.
The Full Rubio: Under this strategy, the GOP would fully embrace immigration reform and full legalization in an effort to heal the rift with Hispanics and other immigrants. There are good conservative reasons for doing this, since the immigrant groups tend to have stronger “family values” then do the “native” Americans. They are naturally conservative. So naturally, the conservatives are opposed to their presence. Instead of making arguments about why the Republican Party is their natural home, they argue that they should all just go home.
Marco Rubio was a favorite among the Tea Party types and a leader in early polling. But since he has endorsed immigration reform, he has sunk like a stone in the polls and in the eyes of the Tea Party, he has joined the ranks of the RINOs. This despite the fact that the Senate bill is positively draconian in its treatment of immigrants. It militarizes the border, imposes stiff fines and “back taxes” on immigrants, has an English language requirement, and an astounding 13-year waiting period. Most of us are descendants of immigrants, and had these laws been in place, most of us would not be here.
In any case, this strategy seems to be a non-starter in Republican primaries, hence it will not be a Republican policy.
The Neo-neocons: This is the faction that longs for the good old days of good King Dubya. They wish to rule with the time-honored Republican principle of governing with malice towards none, and charity towards Halliburton, and other similarly well-connected corporations. The neo-neocons consider themselves pragmatists, which means that they don’t have any actual principles they ever have to compromise; the one uncompromising rule is power, and doing what it takes to get it.
It is hard to say what “neo-conservatism” actually is; they talk like libertarians but rule like liberals. But this makes them ideally suited to lead the Party, so long as nobody asks where the Party is going. They have to be neo-neocons because the implicit promise is, “put us back in power, and we promise not to screw it up this time.”
Their great advantage is the total lack of principle; they are perfectly plastic. Hence, they can be Tea-Party partisans in the primaries, and then “pivot” (I love that word) 180 degrees for the general election. They can wrap themselves around a term like “compassionate conservatism” without ever telling anybody what it means. What it meant last time was a federal takeover of local schools in the guise of “No Child Left Behind,” and a testing regime that made the schools into factories of conformity and enemies of real thought. It was not school reform, but a way of insuring schools could never reform. But no matter; the program generated tons of lucrative consulting contracts and if you didn’t like it, you could always send your children to private schools, or better yet, to those private schools at public expense known as charter schools. Of course, they won’t use the term “compassionate conservatism” this time, since that is rather shopworn. But there will be something equally vague and unctuous; coming up with such terms is why the spin doctors are so well paid.
But the magic may not work this time. People have short memories, but not that short. They will remember the explosion of the deficit (starting from a surplus), the constant wars, the surveillance state, the unfunded expansion of Medicare Part D, water boarding, bailouts, subsidies, “No Child Left Behind,” the destruction of our manufacturing base, the refusal to regulate the derivatives market, the housing bubble and collapse, and the hundred other depredations of neo-conservatism. Mostly, they will remember that “neo-conservatism” was neither new nor conservative, but simply a continuation of the old tactics that conserve power for the powers that be.
Moreover, the Democrats are faced with the same conundrum. Even the most ardent and partisan liberal cannot deny the appalling continuities between the administrations of Dubya Bush and Barrack Obama. The hope-y, change-y thing has just not worked out for the Liberals; there has been no change and very little hope of getting there. Even Obama’s singular piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, had its roots in the American Enterprise Institute plan, in RomneyCare, and in Bush’s Medicare Part D plan (which, by the way, is the first place we got the procedure which Sarah Palin labeled “death panels.”) To every charge a Republican can level at them, the Democrat can say, “But you supported it back then.” To which the Republican replies, “And you support it now.” Surely, there should be a way out of this trap.
In any case, none of these strategies seem poised to extricate the Party from its plight. Does this mean that the Republican Party is all washed up, ready to go the way of the fractious Whigs, the Federalists, and the Know-nothings? Not at all. In fact, they may find themselves in an unassailable position by the time of the 2016 elections, poised to keep the House and take both the Presidency and the Senate, if they do not already have that after 2014. In truth, they have a secret weapon. This weapon is not the obvious ones: their large core of dedicated volunteers, their unlimited funding from corporate America, their media echo chambers, and the endless stream of corporate-funded think tanks. It is none of these, but something much more powerful and more reliable, something which presents them with the opportunity to come roaring back, if they know how to use it.
What is this secret weapon? That will have to wait until my next post.