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.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nothing Fails Like Failure

Barack Obama didn't win any war of ideas. He didn't have to. Republicans' failure as the governing party was all the argument he needed.

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?

1 comment:

Tom said...

I agree with this analysis. People also recognized that John McCain is no conservative and didn't generate much enthusiasm. Many conservatives I know were also very disappointed with his vote on the financial bailout--just another politician, more of the usual.

I live in Georgia, in a very conservative county. At one of the party delegate meetings I overheard this. Question: "What do you think of McCain." Answer: "Eh, he's all we got." Shrugging as he said it, no enthusiasm at all.