We seek to identify the people and ideas that will lead the Republican Party back out of the wilderness. Topics include core conservatism, potential national leaders, constituencies that that the GOP must reach and the messages that will reach them.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Randall Hoven in American Thinker makes a persuasive case that libertarians and the religious right really can share space in the Republican tent. His argument skates past at least one tough issue -- see below -- but it's a useful counterweight to the divisive talk on both sides. In that category I put Mike Huckabee's sniping at libertarian "faux-cons" and Kathleen Parker's claim that "the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP" is the party's real problem. Inquisitors like Huckabee and Parker need to understand that 1) the GOP's wouldn't have a coherent idea on economics (or much else) without its strong classic-liberal tradition and 2) that it couldn't elect more than a few sewer district board members without the support of religious conservatives. Without its intellectual commitment to liberty, it would be just a confused copy of the Democratic Party -- which in many ways it became in the era of "compassionate conservatism." Without its social-conservative energy, it would be relegated to the political margins, more or less where the Libertarian Party is today.Hoven is basically asking libertarians to recognize that the agenda of the so-called “religious right” is generally in synch with their own desire for liberty and limited government. Historically, religious conservatives -- especially those "dissenting" Protestants, such as Baptists, in sects not favored by establishment -- have wanted little more than freedom to practice their religion publicly and freedom from the entanglement of churches and state power. Deep down, I think that history still matters, though evangelicals certainly have a higher political profile than in the old days. They may want to influence the culture, and they don't want all barriers to vulgarity and obscenity removed from the public square. But they also tend to distrust government, which they (rightly) see as a force that secularists -- especially secularist judges -- will use as much as they can to push religion into the shadows. They also believe, with reason, that private charity delivered through their churches beats the welfare state when it comes to getting real help to those most in need. As F.A. Hayek has noted, this limited view of the state, though not religious in itself, nevertheless has been favored by political leaders of strong religious convictions. Limitless government, from the French Revolution to the Soviet Union, has always been preferred by those who are hostile to religion.
Religious conservatives do try to influence public policy through the electoral process, but so does everyone else. And if they can win in a fair democratic vote on one of their core issues, like gay marriage, that means they have most of the people on their side. More importantly, if they lose in a fair democratic contest on something like gay marriage, the kind of judges they favor would not seek to reverse that vote and impose a gay-marriage ban over the objections of the people. Conservative judges don’t think that way.
Another issue dear to religious conservatives is that of public-square religion, like crosses or Christmas trees on public property or “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Here they also tend to have majorities on their side, or at least only a small minority finds itself so offended that it cares to protest. Since a majority has no problem with “under God,” the question then is whether any minority’s rights are being infringed. To many liberals, simply being reminded that you’re in a minority – a non-believer in a religious society, for instance – somehow deprives you of a civil right. A few judges go this route, but most of us would agree that there is no “right” of a religious minority not to be reminded of majority views.
To sum up the big-tent case: Secular libertarians and religious conservatives may have sharply different world views, but they have a similar preference for limited government. So what explains the political gulf between them? Why does Sarah Palin, for instance, inspire such different reactions among religious-right conservatives and classic-liberal intellectuals? Cultural divisions could have something to do with it. GOP elites and the rank and file come from different worlds. In so many ways, Alaska is very far from Manhattan.
But on at least one major issue (and there may be others), the more secular conservatives have legitimate reason to distrust the religious right. It's about public education. It centers on the teaching of evolution and the desire of religious right either to downplay Darwinian science or "balance" it with the teaching of creationism as an acceptable alternate view.
Polls suggest that the public's attitude toward this theologically loaded issue is complex. One 2008 Gallup survey says 60% Republicans believe that God created humans in their present from 10,000 years ago, while only 38% of Democrats and 40% of independents agreed. But a 2007 USA Today suggests that a majority of Americans actually see both creationism and evolution as likely explanations for life on Earth. And 64% of the respondents in a 2005 Pew poll said they were open to the idea of teaching both views, even though only 42% were strict creationists themselves. But if the public is fuzzy on the validity of evolutionary theory, scientists are not. Creationism is religious doctrine, not science. Ditto for "intelligent design." Injecting either into school curriculum as "science" is wrong for at least two reasons that offend the classic-liberal conscience: It entangles religion and state and teaches factual error. As long as the religious right seeks to inject creationism into science curricula, it can expect resistance from those on the right who value reason and science along with liberty.
Monday, December 1, 2008
It's never smart to tune out your critics, especially the more thoughtful ones such as Gabler. But the fact is that gaining and holding power in a two-party system demands considerable nose-holding. You don't get a majority on your side by setting out lofty principles and waiting for the voters to applaud. Instead, you need to patch together majorities by appealing to people and places that can have quite different interests, views of the world and views of each other. Until the 1960s, the Democratic Party held power by keeping Northern liberals and whites from the segregated South under one tent. As late as 1964, the most stubborn resistance to racial equality under the law came from within the Democratic Party. The Landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended the Jim Crow era in the South, would not have passed without the support of Senate Republicans and their leader Everett Dirksen, who worked with liberal Democrats to break the Southern Democrats' filibuster and bring the bill to the vote. It was Richard Russell, a Democrat from Georgia, who said, "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states."
Little-told stories such as these are good to remember when Democrats start talking about GOP Original Sin. The Democratic Party has other history it would rather live down, such as its confused response to Soviet aggression and its post-Vietnam defeatism. Southern whites did migrate to the Republican Party as the party turned to the right in 1964. But it took much more than the so-called "Southern strategy" to explain Richard Nixon's landslide win over George McGovern in 1972, when McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Then, as in other years of decisive Republican victories (1980, 1988 and 2004), the Democratic candidate was seen as weak or vacillating and the Republican won on a platform (and perception) of strength. A tradition of upholding American interests with a second-to-none defense has been part of Republican DNA at least as far back as Teddy Roosevelt. If Barack Obama finds a way to reestablish the Democratic Party in the voters' mind as a party of strength, the Republicans are in big trouble for the long term. But if he's not so inclined, or if he's stymied by the left wing of his party, then the GOP may come back sooner than its critics would ever have dreamed. And race won't have anything to do with it.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Thursday, November 20, 2008
But that's all history now. For those looking forward, the interesting data in this survey come from responses to the question of whether the party is conservative enough. Most Republicans -- 59% -- said it should be more conservative, while only 12% said it should move toward the left aqnd 28% thought it should stay about the same. That's good news not just for conservatives but for the idea of a two-party system, because it says most Republicans want their party to be a real alternative to the Democrats, not just a watered-down imitation of them. This means good riddance to Bush's "compassionate conservatism," with its implied message that conservatives as morally deficient without a dose of welfare liberalism. It also means that rank-and-file Republicans would rather see their party act as the principled opposition in Washington and let the Democrats get the credit or blame for acts of Congress.
But what about the independents, whose votes are needed for any party, conservative or liberal, to gain a majority. They're split on the question of where the GOP should go: 35% say it should turn right, and 35% say it should steer left. Faced with a toss-up vote like that, the Republicans have no reason to resist the will of the party faithful. While the poll isn't exactly a green light to go right, it's no worse than yellow.
But what does it mean to be "more conservative"? That's a big question, on which I'll comment before too long. I'd like to read your thoughts on it in the meantime.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
This is smart. Given a choice between enforcing lockstep party loyalty or strengthening their majority, the Democrats chose the latter course and will now be a stronger force in the Senate. Any chance of Lieberman bolting to the Republicans is gone. And I would expect Lieberman to patch things up quickly with his party. The Iraq war, the issue that really drove the wedge between him and his colleagues, is winding down and no longer has much power to divide people. His friend John McCain is off the presidential campaign trail and back in the Senate. And on most issues, Lieberman is a mainstream-to-liberal Democrat.
The caucus vote on Lieberman came after Barack Obama let it be known that he didn't want to see the senator punished for straying. That might not be how his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel would handle an apostate, but Barack's the boss and he believes in the Big Tent.
Now it's true that magnanimous acts come more naturally to winners than to losers. Witness the Republicans, who seem to be following the typical pattern of backbiting that follows a political disaster. Mike Huckabee already has a book out, and (to judge from reports), he takes it to Mitt Romney, Gary Bauer, the Club for Growth and everyone else who wouldn't endorse him. He also lays claim to representing "real" conservatism against the "faux-cons" who opposed him. McCain's campaign ended ugly, too. Its staffers first went after Sarah Palin, then Palin roared back with a blitzkrieg of interviews with whoever would point a camera and mike at her. Now she's said to be angling for a $7 million book deal. When the GOP gets get serious about winning again, the fratricide and arguments over right-wing purity will wind down. But Republicans may then find that Barack has already shepherded most of the Independents into his Big Tent before they've managed to pitch one of their own.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Before, during and after the 2004 elections, this theory of an "investor class" with its own distinct politics looked plausible. Roughly half of American households owned stock, either directly or through mutual funds, and Republican strategists like Grover Norquist saw this group as a possible ticket to a long-term GOP majority. "Every demographic group, including race, gender, age, and income, becomes more Republican with stock ownership," Norquist wrote, and he cited pollster Scott Rasmussen's data that, back then at least, if you owned at least $5,000 in stock you were 18% more likely to be a Republican. Not everyone accepted the theory -- you can get a window into the debate here and here -- but what data there was seemed to back it up. An Investor's Business Daily poll in October 2004 showed Bush beating John Kerry by a much wider margin, 53% to 42%, among self-identified "investor-class" voters than his edge in the general population.
Four years later, IBD polled the same group just before the election and found them almost evenly split, at 47% for John McCain to 46% for Barack Obama. This was no enough for McCain to win, but it still beat his edge in the overall popular vote.
So maybe the investor class is still marginally more Republican than the people at large. But it was less Republican in 2008 than in 2004, and it did not give McCain anything close to the support he needed to win. Investors as a group aren't GOP stalwarts -- certainly not in the way that conservative Evangelicals are. They are more of a bellwether of economic confidence or pessimism, depending on the times. And their shifting party preferences don't seem much different from those of voters in general. They vote their pocketbooks, or more specifically their portfolios. As the 2004 election approached, the stock market had risen steadily for the past three years (gaining about 30% as measured by the S&P 500). Just before the 2008 election, as we all know to our deep and abiding pain, the market fell off a cliff.
And here's an irony for the GOP investor-class theorists: The high number of Americans with stock investments might have done the party more harm than good by striking fear into the hearts of so many millions of voters. By linking its fortunes to wealth of investors, the Republicans may have bet too much on the stock market, an entity that neither they nor anyone else can control or even accurately predict. Just as good times can make Republicans out of more investors, who like the GOP talk of low taxes on fat capital gains, a bad bear market can produce more Democrats who say "never again" to stocks and opt for the sort of safety only government can provide. The way things are going now, 401(k)s may give way to Japanese-style postal savings plans. Remember that the 30s and the political revolution of the New Deal came after a binge of retail stock investing and a boom in home ownership. A happy investor class may be good for Republicans, but a disillusioned investor class is something else.
Friday, November 14, 2008
The next thing is to start talking about the need for "ideas." Utah Gov. John Huntsman Jr., at a GOP governors' meeting this week in Miami, said, "Everyone wants to talk about personalities . . . But for us it's: Where are the ideas? Then the personalities and the names are going to come from those ideas over the next couple of years." (Read the whole story here)
Good question, depending on what Huntsman means by "ideas." If he's just talking (like most politicians) about policy proposals, then the party has plenty of those. Some are old, like school vouchers, but some are relatively fresh, like the various market-based health-care reforms in McCain's platform this year. And I have no doubt that conservative policy shops such as the Heritage Foundation will crank out more of these in coming months and years. Some of them will be geniunely interesting to the few people who follow such things. But none of them will produce the shift in public attitudes that Republicans need to create a governing majority once again.
For that to happen, a different breed of "ideas" -- or maybe just one big idea -- is needed. These are the ideas that transcend policy specifics and exist apart from the day-to-day problem-solving and dealmaking that politicians do. These ideas don't come out of think tanks. They emerge from universities, literary circles and other corners of American life that conservatives (and identified Republicans in particular) have almost completely abandoned. Among all the academic disciplines, for instance, only in economics is conservative thinking still represented, and it is no longer dominant. The humanities and social sciences are lost to conservatism for at least this generation, and the physical sciences (for now) mostly apolitical, as they should be.
So what are conservative ideas, and why is it important that they re-enter the intelligentsia? The first part of that question has been debated for decades. You can find the wide-ranging points of view in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, Jerry Z. Muller's Conservatism and William F. Buckley's anthology Have You Ever Seen A Dream Walking? (the latter apparently out of print, but hopefully available at a good library). If I can pull out a few common threads in these and other books on American conservative thought, it's that conservatism is rooted in these ideas (big, big ideas):
- Individual liberty, especially as set forth in the Declaration of Independence.
- Individual responsibility (a tougher sell politically) for the outcomes of one's life. That is, a conservative doesn't think the world owes you a living even if, as Democrats like to say, you "work hard and play by the rules."
- An acceptance of some inequality of outcomes, at least to the extent that it reflects the inequalities of individual ability, drive, willingness to take risks, etc.
- A government with clearly -- and constitutionally -- defined limits to its power,.
- A right to property that puts the burden on governments to prove why they should take any of it, through taxes or other means.
- On social issues, a respect for tradition (as in marriage, say) and a suspicion of innovators. As with property, the burden of proof is on the innovators to say why a long-standing tradition should be changed. This idea goes back to the man whom conservatives of all stripes still seem to accept as a common ancestor, Edmund Burke.
- In economics, a belief that the actions of myriad individual actors (businesses and consumers) in the marketplace will always be wiser than the attempts by politicians and bureaucrats, fewer in number if higher in their view of their own intellects, to control economic activity. At least in America, there is not such thing as a conservative socialist,. On markets that cross national borders, conservatives do have some differences, which leads to the next point.
- Country first. This is a very American conservative idea, springing from the historical reality that the U.S. grew to a great nation in happy isolation from Europe's crowded, violent, dysfunctional family of nations. As an answer to the Old World and its corruptions (now joined by the corruptions of the Third World), America as seen by conservatives should never submit to the rule of others. If it engages abroad, it must do so as a leader, not a follower. Conservatives differ mainly on how much America should involve abroad, especially when war is involved. But they share a distrust of anything, like the U.N. of liberal fantasies, that smacks of "world government."
There's more in this rich tradition of thought. But for now I'll leave these few ideas out there to ponder, along with the question: How many of today's Republican politicians could do a decent job of explaining, much less defending, these fundamentals? Another way of putting the question is to ask if you heard these points raised, in more than sound-bite form, in the past campaign. At least Barack Obama showed some skill at throwing big ideas around, in the style of a smart grad student who has mastered the basic academic lingo but has nothing original to add. The leading Republican lights (maybe not the best word) didn't seem willing or able to get beyond slogans and present an extended argument. Maybe this is extension of George W. Bush's style, which was usually to say what he was going to do, like the no-nonsense CEO he was, and then repeat the message over and over. It might also be a holdover from way that campaigns are fought now -- less by trying to persuade the undecided than with bringing as many of your true-believers as possible to the polls. This worked well for the GOP in 2000 and 2004. Unfortunately, the Democrats learned how to do the same in 2008.
Maybe what the Republicans need most right now is not a few bright new faces and new policies, but a big book or two. It takes a book to lay out a case from fundamentals -- and to counter GOP's reputation as "the stupid party." A good book or two also could re-connect the party with young readers who are bright, intellectually restless, maybe reading Ayn Rand and wondering if that's all there is. Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative did that trick in the early 60s. Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind 25 years later popularized conservative ideas on the fate of culture and academia. If nothing else, a book like that would reaffirm the existence of a Conservative Mind.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Too harsh a judgment? Well, just do this thought experiment: What if the Bush Administration had sent enough troops to Iraq in 2003 rather than waitinng until 2007? What if FEMA had showed up on time in New Orleans after Katrina? What if Treasury and the SEC had moved a year or so earlier to regulate the vast new market in mortgage derivatives before it collapsed and brought down the global financial system? In other words, what if Republican government had been demonstrably competent at key junctures, and not asleep at the switch?
You might differ, but I would bet that we would not be looking ahead to an Obama administration if the Republicans hadn't failed in some spectacular ways. There would be no talk of a "permanent progressive majority" or a realignment on the order of 1932 or 1980. As pollster Scott Rasmussen pointed out a couple of days ago, most Americans still agree with Ronald Reagan's view that, more often than not, goverment is the problem and not the solution.
And notice that Obama won by promising tax cuts to most voters. He made a far bigger deal of these than of any new programs. I know that a big chunk of these "cuts" are handouts (refundable credits) rather than reductions in actual taxes owed, but that distinction doesn't count in politics. Virtually all Americans who vote see themselves as taxpayers. If it's not income tax they pay, they'll insist that they pay plenty through other means -- payroll tax, sales tax, property tax, etc. Obama wasn't pulling America to the left with his tax-cut pitch. He was stealing one of the Republicans' best themes. He was shrewdly selling himself to an electorate that, deep down, hadn't really changed much over the past eight years.
What has changed in the past eight years is the public's perception of GOP competence. George W. Bush came into office with memories of Republican success still fresh. Reagan, in particular, was revered on the right and respected (grudgingly) on the left not because he was a great communicator but because his administration had been, by any objective measure, a success. Eight years after coming into office with the economy in chaos, the Soviet empire on the march on multiple fronts and Americans humiliated in Iran, he left office with Soviet Communism on the verge of collapse and an economy enjoying its longest peacetime expansion -- an no inflation. (Our hostages were long gone from Iran, though trouble was still in store there for a later time).
His successor, George H.W. Bush, successfully fought the Gulf War (though with limited aims); he might have been re-elected were it not for the Ross Perot's strange obsession with bringing him down. Then, after eight years of a personally undisciplined president, the new Bush administration seemed at first like the return of adult supervision, with respected figures like Colin Powell and Dick Cheney (yes, Cheney was respected) in important jobs.
It will not be easy winning back that reputation for getting things done right. But there's some good news in that grim assessment: If Americans want competence above all, they will vote for leaders with whom the don't completely agree as long as they see them as people of demonnstrated ability and common sense.
To go back again to Reagan, it was critical to his success in 1980 not only that Jimmy Carter had failed and that Americans were willing to try something new, but also that Reagan had been governor of the nation's most populous state for two terms, and California hadn't fallen into the sea. His consevative credentials were second to none, but so was his track record as a practical chief executive.
No secret where this discussion is leading -- to governors. Everybody has been talking about two of them, Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal. But Republicans also have big-state governors (in Florida and Texas) and might elect a governor constitutionally qualified for the presidency in 2010. The ideological battle for the soul of the GOP is always interesting to watch, but this time around I doubt if it will really determine the success of the party. My guess is that track record will trump ideas for the time being What do you think?
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
Sunday, November 9, 2008
This year, the Democrats have several potential candidates with problems -- Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa and Jerry Brown (!). Newsom has to live down his starring role as an in-your-face promoter of gay marriage ("like it or not..."). Villaraigosa's appeal seems strictly local to Los Angeles. Regarding Brown, too many Californians still remember that he was, in fact, a failure as governor and took decades to revive his political career. Do the Democrats want to be known as the retread party?
The Republicans have one statewide officeholder, Steve Poizner. His post as insurance commissioner is not visible enough to put him on any political fast track, but he was smart enough to get elected and may be smart enough to capitalize on the position he occupies now. I'm more intrigued with people like Meg Whitman, who've made their mark outside politics and have the executive ability to be governor. Any names (besides Whitman) that you would suggest?
Saturday, November 8, 2008
I want to stimulate a freewheeling discussion that aims to identify the people and ideas most likely to lead the party back out of the wilderness. We'll be talking about potential candidates, known and not-so-known, constituencies that that party must reach to create electoral majorities, and the messages that will reach them.
As a Californian, I will focus on the challenge of reclaiming the Golden State for the GOP, starting with the governorship. This state propelled Ronald Reagan into national leadership, and I believe it can do something like that again. I've lived here all my life, and I know how surprising California politics can be. That said, I'm also eager to hear from people in all 50 states and D.C. about the state of the party nationwide, its challanges and its opportunities.
Also, if you haven't figured it out already, GOP Future is in no way affiliated with the Republican Party or any of its state or local units. The opinions expressed here are strictly those of the individuals who post.