Friday, May 1, 2009

What a New Republican Party Might Look LIke

A Person would have had to be living on Mars (or at the very least, not so politically minded as to have routinely checked for the past four months to see if there are any new entries on this blog), to have missed the news that things are going badly for the Grand Ole Party -- and on any of a wide and growing assortment of fronts. According to the most recent polling data on the subject, about twenty percent of respondents now self-identify as Republicans, the lowest that number has ever been in history. A plurality of Americans now support gay marriage, the impending retirement of Supreme Court Justice David Souter will come at the precise moment that the GOP is scrambling to fill its most senior position on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Newt Gingerich is in a shooting war with his own party chair, and Lindsay Graham, Steve Schmidt, and Megan McCain are all running around talking in various ways about the need to embrace some of the least likely talking-points for Republicans to consider embracing since Nixon reached out to the south. Meanwhile, a certain Governor of Alaska has suddenly and inexplicably gone to ground during all of this "re-branding" talk--presumably since re-branding the GOP away from its current forumla of lowest-common-denomenator hate-baiting would render her instantly obsolete. All of which begs the question: Assuming the Republican party survives at all (incidentally, not an automatically safe presumption), what would a competitive version of it look like, moving forward?

Obviously any exercise in visualizing a future Republican party is going to be speculative on two important levels: it must presume omniscience with respect to the thought processes of the people who will actually carry it out, of course, but it must also presume enough precience about future events that major re-invention continues to seem necessary long enough for it to happen. If the United States should suffer another terrorist attack on its own soil this coming September, for example, and if--as happened the last time--it should turn out that the President was briefed about the danger in advance, there can be no question but that Republicans will cheerfully embrace the hypocrisy necessary to scapegoat the Administration and run the midterm electoral table by making blood-soaked hay with the whole affair.

On the other hand, this author has been thinking for quite a long time now that there are certain innate inconsistencies in the Bush/Dole/Bush/McCain incarnation of Republicanism, that these inconsistencies are not (for the most part) mirrored with offsetting hypocrisies on the part of the Democrats, and that cleaning up some of the mess might render the decision of which party to support a much more interesting one in the hearts and minds of those white males who are capable of thinking in complete sentences about anything more serious than Monday Night Football. Here, then, is the list of changes that The Key Grip believes are inescapable prerequisites to a revitalized and nationally competitive Republican Party in a post-Bush twenty-first century:

1) They must abandon the 1988 playbook. Many people have spoken very eloquently about the incomperable genius of Karl Rove as an electoral tactician, and that's a curious thing in this author's judgment, since Rove was a first-circle protege of Lee Atwater--the man who gave us the first of the post-Reagan, slash-and-burn, lowest-common-denomenator hate campaigns, back in 1988. In the absense of a washed-up movie actor who could still use a teleprompter to plagiarize his commemoration of a space shuttle disaster, the Republican agenda was essentially dead in the water. Most people don't remember it now, but in early summer polling Michael Dukakis was leading Reagan's default successor by seventeen points. Nobody doesn't remember what happened next: With breathless speed, the Atwater operation descended on Dukakis' character with what became the textbook Republican one-two punch of questioning the man first, and then the policies. Dukakis was shown riding in a tank, and then Willie Horton was... well... just shown, if it comes to that. The whole thing was cynical, odious, and intentionally tailored to the "low-information voters" whose emotions (not to say their racism) could easily be manipulated by images on television. And it worked.

It worked in 2002 and 2004, too, when the deep and searing anxiety about September 11th so overwhelmed the American public's capacity for reason, that the man who'd been reading nursary rhymes to schoolchildren when the whole thing happened could somehow argue that he was the only person in the country who could keep us safe. On the Democrats' opposition to what we all now realize was a trumped-up war being argued on false pretense with tenuous connections to the attack, he ran up his numbers in the '02 midterms. On the Democratic nominee's representation of himself as a strength-and-security alternative, the incumbent's Atwater-protege campaign strategiest trotted out the Atwater playbook to maximum effect: Question the character first, and then, once the character is questionable, question the policy. And it worked. At least in part because the guy they were doing it to, is a douchebag. But that's another column.

Point being, a lot has changed in the world since 2004--and not just the replacement of security as the top issue concerning most Americans, either. In 2008 and 2009 and beyond, the primary vehicle for political discourse simply isn't television anymore; it's the new media. It's the internet. It's blogs like this one. And the thing is, hot-button catch-phrases just don't work in a comment-driven medium like this one. John McCain runs an ad saying that Barack Obama wants to teach sex education to kindergarteners, and the story gets blurbed in the political news websites all over this country, after which the comment forums directly beneath the stories overflow with meticulous dissections of the ad for the hate-baiting drivel that it is. The hot-button defenders weigh in, but are quickly shouted down by an avalanche of reasoned, thoughtful, one might even say nuanced counter-argument, until eventually they give up and go back to listening to their AM-radios at the vacuum cleaner store.

Meanwhile, the "low-information voters" whose television-based voting heuristics have, after a generation of being rewarded for lower and lower levels of information, inclined them to decide that all politicians are rascals, have responded in the only way they can: by sitting the whole thing out. Much was made about the comparatively small up-tick in voter turnout this past election cycle; it is my belief that the top-line data hides the story: there was an abnormally high "churn" in voter turnout, with television-watchers supplanted by normally self-disenfranchised new agers whose ire could no longer be suppressed by the latest album out of Windham Hill.

Like it or not (and this author at least does), the new political debate is one of substance over shock-and-awe. Internet forums don't let people shout emotion-fanning nonsense and have the last word the way television does. If the Republican party wants to revitalize itself, it will have to start with a repudiation of the anti-content, anti-intellectual, anti-agenda with which it has been auguring the country into the ground for the thick end of my lifetime. It'll have to stand for something more significant than repealing the estate tax and calling the other guy a socialist. Because the only people who vote anymore will be waiting to swat-down anything less.

2) They must embrace small-c conservatism. It's been said before by persons more articulate than I, on both sides of the political aisle, but there's a fundamental inconsistency inherent in calling one's group "the party of small government" on the one hand, and embracing runaway defense spending, on the other. And the irony is that the Republican party hasn't always been like this: in the days preceding the second world war, Republicans were clamorously non-interventionist, fearing that militarization of the national economy would unduly empower the federal government. Indeed after the war, none other than Dwight David Eisenhower used the opportunity of his farewell adress to warn the country of the growing power of the "military industrial complex" to set the national political agenda.

Forty-eight years later his words seem heartbreakingly prescient, and the party from which he hailed now holds the record for the largest explosion in military deficit-spending in history. A party that claims to be for smaller government can't withstand the glib, internet forum smack-downs that it so richly deserves for gobbling up our children's future to spend it all in Iraq. And unless and until the small-government wonks can gain the upper hand over the shoot-em-in-the-face crowd, a tea party to protest basic, Keynesian recovery-spending on roads, bridges and schools will ring hollow in the minds of anyone who bothers to scroll down and read the first four comments beneath the story. In 1993 the tea parties would've made for great television; in 2009 they make for self-caricaturing blog comedy--and the Republican brand just sinks lower and lower and lower. Not everyone would support a smaller-government party, but at least that party would be self-consistent with respect to the two biggest planks in its platform: taxes and spending. This would seem a relatively obvious prerequisite to re-branding the Republican party, regardless of who in the current coalition would have to be sacrificed in the process.

3) They must be more inclusive with respect to faith. I myself have no faith, indeed am proud to count myself among those who have no faith, but there is no particular reason why a political party whose agenda includes renewed commitment to faith-based living has to be fundamentally offensive to me the way the 2008-2009 Republican party is. The reason they make people like me so angry (and scare the hell out of everyone else) is not so much their embrace of faith but rather their rejection of it--specifically, their rejection of any faith that isn't extremist, born-again Crhistianity in its least christian and most aggressive forms. Granted, a re-branded Republican party could position itself in the other direction, toward a more "libertarian" approach on social issues, but there's a reason why libertarians are so few in number: They're either Republicans because they don't like taxes or they're Democracts because they don't believe in God.

I believe that a re-branded Republican party succeeds not by renouncing its faith but rather by re-positioning itself to focus on the objectives of that faith, a la Mike Huckabee: It could be the party that opposes not just abortion but also the death penalty. It could be the party that supports not just orphanages but ending world hunger. It could be the party that welcomes not just Southern Baptists and Joe Lieberman, but right-minded persons of all faiths, instead. I'd have a hard time supporting a party that wanted explicitly mulitdenominational religious instruction in our public schools, but I'd have a harder time being so angry and scared by the idea as I am by the existing intention to turn our nation's classrooms into hot-houses of extremist Christian-right-wing proselytizing.

4) They must find their roots on the subject of free enterprise. Your intrepid author has attempted a Ph.D. in economics, depending on how you count, no fewer than three times in his life, and all of them have ended in failure. Part of the reason is that your intrepid author isn't bright enough to pass the tests--but that's only part of the reason. The rest is a crippling and ubiquitous frustration with the fundamental, nay preposterous self-inconsistency of the modern conservative economic paradigm. It advocates greater market concentrations so as to exploit economies of scale, but ignores the anti-competitive side-effects of the decreased competition. It embraces free trade on the premise of lower product prices, but ignores the nagging detail that the only firms large enough to justify the move to cheaper labor markets are also large enough to withhold the cost-savings from their customers. It calls agriculture a perfectly competitive industry despite the fact that all those countless farmers get together once every October to sell their production to a monopsony buyer, with all the market distortions that appertain thereto.

There is absolutely no reason why a re-branded Republican party couldn't embrace all aspects of a less-encumbered, properly functioning market economy--notably including some basic checks on the extent of anti-competitive corporate power. They could advocate for freer trade, while at the same time supporting wage insurance and increased investment in workforce training. They could espouse less government regulation over the subject of opening and operating a business, without also embracing anti-perfect-information policies with respect to product- and workforce safety. They could be cavalier about the environment without coming across as cavalier about the downstream, downwind safety of our kids. I'd probably still vote the other way, but a party that said "free enterprise only works when there's less government intervention and smaller firms with greater competition" would at least be a lot harder to dismiss on the basis of open and shameless hypocrisy, the way this Republican party and its corps of professional economists is, now.

5) They must drop their one-sided policies with respect to immigration and the Middle East. This one is a toughy, since the White House is so tough to win without holding Florida and Arizona, but neither the Latino community nor the well-informed political junkies of the internet are going to suffer cheerfully a political party that panders to anti-Hispanic rhetoric in the desert southwest, or to an "anti-terrorist" plank that green-lights unilateral military adventurism by Israel. The situations on the borders between the United States and Mexico and between Israel and the West Bank are both bad and getting worse--not in spite of, but because of the Republican party's tacit acceptance of a race-dividing status quo with respect to the former and a barely contained anti-Muslim furor with respect to the latter.

When the path to citizenship is difficult, bordering on impossible, the only people who try are the most desperate (and, to that extent, the least easily recognized as potential benefactors of hard work and ingenuity). An easier path to citizenship in this country encourages not just free enterprise but increased innovation, attracting the very people most likely to be frustrated by their home country's thwarting of their Horatio-Algier spirits. It's a little-known but important fact that if Albert Einstein was alive and living in Germany today and wanted to come to the United States, he'd have to go through the infamous April Fool's lottery like everyone else--and probably wouldn't get in. (It'd be okay, though, because he could go build the atomic bomb for a more welcoming country somewhere else, instead.) Until the path to citizenship in this country returns to its free-enterprise-encouraging ease, and corporations are forced to hire U.S. citizens and pay them a living wage, no party that claims to love free enterprise can rest on a bed of anything other than hypocrisy when it advocates such ridiculous and race-dividing measures as the construction of a fence along the border.

Meanwhile in the Middle East, the previous Administration's quietude on Israeli excesses has created a powderkeg of disempowered resentment on the part of the Palestinians, largely in response to the Israelis' construction of a border fence of their own--a nightmarish concrete monolith that already stretches to over 200 miles, dividing families, destroying towns, suppressing Palestinian economic activity and effectively ruining all prospects for peace for the duration of its own existence. No political party that claims to be in favor of suppressing terrorism can turn a blind eye to this outrage without risking dismissal in the political news comment pages as a vehicle for shameless doublespeak. To re-brand itself in a way that would appeal to a plurality of better-informed and more racially diverse voters, the Republicans would have to drop the anti-immigration hate mongering, and call for a renewed commitment to forcing all sides to the peace table in the Middle East.

None of this will happen right away, of course, and most of it will never happen. Fortunes will turn and much of this re-branding will be either overtaken by new events or rendered unnecessary by some offsetting implosion on the other side. The purpose of this column was never to suggest that these are the only ways out of the low-20's doldrums for the Republican Party--but rather, to lay out the principal changes through which the "new" Republican Party would be harder for this author not to vote for. It might not make for an extra thirty-percent of the public in its corner, but making it harder for hardened Democrats like myself to dismiss it out of hand could well be the first, big step toward the next realignment of political fortunes, however far into the future that realignment may be. Lest we forget, the Democrats were in a situation not unlike this one in the early days of the Reagan Administration--and it took just this sort of reexamination of principles to get it where it is today.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


Doug said...

Nice to have you back. Missed your commentary after the election concluded!

shabec said...

I agree with Doug--welcome back! We have missed you.

A. Gordon said...

Yay! Dave's back!

To me, it appears the GOP has lost all credibility when it comes to its core tenants:

If you read that blather it actually sounds good. The only problem is that, as you state, their actions are at odds with, nay, undermine, their tenants.

The GOP can't be pro-environment, when it fights legislation to regulate emissions of greenhouse gasses to protect big business.

The GOP can't be for fiscal responsibility when it's responsible for the largest deficit in history.

The GOP can't be for a strong national defense when it supports the likes of Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and torture techniques like water-barding because it completely undermines the security being sought.

The GOP can't be for a neutral judicial system when it abhors any decision disagreed with as "judicial activism" and "legislating from the bench" yet it conveniently overlooks the same when second amendment rights are upheld.

I think these are (only part of) the problems the GOP faces and simply returning to its roots isn't going to work because they have no credibility left. They're going to have to, again as you say, moderate a ton of their positions.

I think the biggest thing preventing that at this point, is that all the power brokers are not moderate Republicans and they actually believe they lost by straying from their roots. Some of them, e.g., Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, understand this, but it appears that no one yet is really willing to listen.

Dave O'Gorman said...

I think the change in media style (television to web-forum) has hurt the Republican party more than all of their hypocrisies put together. It's just so evident when people like us log in to political news aggregator sites Political Wire and start fact-countering all of the right-wing's lowest-common-denominator baloney. The WWF-smackdown era of politics is over. Nuance is *in*.

A. Gordon said...

Amen to that.

Doug said...

Looking forward to your (hopefully soon) commentary on Carribou Barbie's latest bombshell!