Political parties exist for a reason, and it’s a pretty simple one: to implement the policies their voters prefer. It’s a pretty straightforward deal. The voters pick the candidates that best embody their policy preferences, and the candidate, if elected, implements those policies. It works most of the time.
But not always. Parties sometimes go astray for an election cycle or two. Generally, they are pulled back into line by the voters. But, once in a great while, a political party simply fails. The most recent failure of a major political party in the United States was that of the Whigs in the 1850s, when the issue of slavery so divided the northern and southern factions of the party that its voters were simply unable to continue as a unified political entity. Pro-slavery elements absconded to the Democratic Party, while the anti-slavery elements created the Republican Party.*
It is interesting to note this history when viewed against the current state of the Republican Party. What seems to be developing in the GOP is a similar fissure over the size and scope of government. It seems not to be so much a debate among the rank and file, however, as it is between the grass roots and the party establishment.
When I speak of the GOP establishment, I will define it, for convenience, as those members of the GOP whose incomes and/or professional lives are derived primarily from participation in electoral politics, either directly, as a candidate or staffer, or indirectly through journalism, consulting, policy study, or party activism.
There is an increasing sense that the party establishment is more interested in the process of politics, bipartisanism, and policy than they are about the principles behind the party’s ostensible ideology.
The result seems to be a long succession of candidates for whom the principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility seem to have taken a back seat to "getting things done" and "working with the Democrats" to "solve problems". The perception seems to have taken hold that this has resulted in accepting to some extent the collectivist ideological premises of Democrats, though in a milder form.
Bob Dole, famously criticized as "the tax collector for the welfare state", was generally thought of as a political moderate. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism was essentially an embrace of big government for socially conservative ends, rather than limited government, and ultimately, through No Child left behind and Medicare Part D, an embrace of big government for political ends. John McCain was notorious for his "maverick" ways, which came to be generally defined as siding with the Democrats on domestic issues. The GOP seems incapable of producing identifiably limited government conservatives as national candidates.
During this same time, the GOP electorate has become increasingly interested in restraining the size and scope of government, reducing regulations, reducing taxes, and balancing the Federal budget.
Indeed, it’s important to remember that the TEA Party movement began not as a reaction to Mr. Obama’s election, but rather in opposition the Bush Administration’s push for TARP and the bailouts, all of which President Obama embraced and expanded.
This increasing divide between the GOP electorate has led to some embarrassing moments, such as the candidacies of Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell in opposition to the GOP establishment, but also some successes, such as the candidacies of Marco Rubio and Allen West. Both, however, often came in opposition to the wishes of the GOP establishment. Some results of this tension are not yet fully known, such as the ultimate outcome of Sarah Palin’s position as a sort of spokesperson and power-broker for a large percentage of the GOP electorate, at the same time her reputation among the GOP is establishment is, shall we say, mixed.
So, we come to the 2012 election, and the primary candidates for the GOP presidential nomination are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Both men are identifiably part of the GOP establishment. Both are flawed candidates from the point of view of limited-government conservatives. Frankly, neither of them would have a chance at winning an election against Mr. Obama in a normal political environment. Their one hope for beating Mr. Obama in the fall is that this election year is decidedly not normal.
From a policy point of view, Mr. Romney simply isn’t a conservative. He is merely somewhat more conservative than the average Democrat, which is to say he is noticeably more liberal than the GOP rank and file. His record gives every indication of willingness to "work with" Democrats, which can be best understood as code for doing nothing that Democrats strongly oppose. In a normal election, this would translate into a deep sense of ennui among GOP voters that would probably doom his chance of victory.
Mr. Gingrich has a more credible argument for supporting and implementing conservative policies than Mr. Romney in many ways. He is also one of the most actively disliked politicians in the United States. He seems utterly incapable of seeing himself in anything other than world-historical terms, and the result is a noticeably overweening ego. He is the modern embodiment of General George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 election, who once remarked about himself, "I know that I can save this country, and that I alone can." The instinctive dislike of Mr. Gingrich by the general electorate would normally doom his candidacy in an election as well.
Mr. Romney carries Romneycare like a millstone around his neck, yet does so gladly, and refuses to repudiate it. One of his advisors, former MN senator Norm Coleman, said yesterday that Obamacare would not be repealed. Though the campaign quickly came out in opposition to that position, Mr. Romney’s continued defense of the Massachusetts health care plan remains troubling to GOP voters. He speaks about conservative ideals, but his entire political history is one of compromise with them. This may have been a necessity in a deep blue state like Massachusetts, but it translates poorly to a far more conservative national GOP electorate.
Mr. Gingrich managed to make himself so unpopular as Speaker, even with his fellow Republicans in the House, that he was driven out of Washington like some sort of poison troll. Moreover, as recently as last March on Meet the Press, he supported the individual mandate for health insurance, the key controversy over Obamacare. Mr. Gingrich still defends his support of Medicare Part D. Mr. Gingrich was also one of the primary movers behind the K Street project, which tied the Republican Party deeply with lobbyists, pushed the party into supporting lobbyist pet projects, and ended with the fall of Jack Abramoff, as well as some leading GOP politicians like Tom DeLay. His recent criticisms of Bain Capital, and the concept of private equity firms in general, are also troubling, coming, as they do, from a progressive viewpoint.
In short both men have troubling histories that raise serious questions about their ability to govern as conservatives. I would suggest that if the next president is a Republican, and does not do everything in his power to repeal Obamacare, the Republicans will be finished as a national political party. The same holds true of they fail to restrain federal spending or the growth of the national debt. That would be the short path to the GOP going the way of the Whigs.
Irrespective of presidential politics, however, the GOP is still on the path to decline under their current leadership. If, over the next few election cycles, the GOP establishment cannot bring themselves to actively push candidates of distinctly limited government views, and if they do not actively push for smaller government, less spending, and less debt in Congress, the GOP rank and file will abandon the party and create a replacement for it.
Barry Goldwater’s motto in 1964 was, "A choice, not an echo". Sadly, the GOP establishment seems most comfortable offering a moderately less radical echo of the Democrats. The GOP electorate, however, increasingly wants a choice. A party that is incapable of promoting candidates with a distinctly fiscally conservative, limited government ideology is also incapable of providing that choice.
That is a path to extinction.
*Interestingly, the southern Whigs imparted a more conservative, business-friendly element into southern Democrats, the vestiges of which still remain, and one result of which was the general electoral success by southern Democrats for the Presidency, opposed to Northerners. Of the Democratic presidents in the 20th century, Wilson, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton were all distinctly southerners, while only Roosevelt and Kennedy were northerners. Truman is the odd man out, being from Missouri, though it certainly was at least as much southern as it was northern.
I remember giddy Republicans in early 2001. At last they had won the Presidency and both houses of Congress. They were like football fans whose team had just won the SuperBowl.
What exactly did we get out of that wonderful deal, again? Oh, yeah, a higher rate of spending than under Clinton. A new entitlement we couldn’t afford. Intrusion of the federal government into education. A blatantly unconstitutional law limiting free speech during elections.
However, it was a good time for DC Republicans. There were lots of jobs and lots of opportunities to get on the talk shows.
I suppose I understand, then, why DC Republicans look at elections more like a football game. If their team wins the game, there are goodies to go around.
However, the rest of us, including many disaffected Republicans, have realized that the rah-rah, go team approach to politics is a pointless waste of time, money, and energy. This is shown in the Tea Party’s character, for example. They want to discuss issues, and they’re not dazzled by nice hair, experience in the establishment political world, or all the other characteristics that political consultants find so important when they rate candidates.
One would think that the establishment GOP would have enough self-awareness to understand that it’s time to change their view on candidates and elections. I’d like to think these people are intelligent enough to read the charts and realize that the time for playing games is past. We are very probably approaching a worldwide financial crisis that will rock the very foundations of Western society.
Unfortunately they don’t seem to notice, as I was reminded this weekend when I read this piece on The Corner quoting Mary Matalin:
…Republicans should get over their puppy love, she said, and realize that no candidate is going to be perfect. The important thing is that they can beat President Obama.
No. That’s not the important thing. That statement may sound wise and obvious to DC political types, but it’s absolutely wrong, and there are two ironclad reasons why.
First, if it gets us a Nixon or a G.W. Bush, then it actually makes things worse. Suppose we expend our limited opportunity to reverse our current headlong rush to catastrophe by electing such a person. Then suppose the catastrophe comes on their watch.
The result is that it’s probably then the last chance the GOP will ever get to fix things. The left-leaning media will pin all the blame on the Republicans, and contort every fact they find to make it look like the Democrats can fix things.
An observant, rational person might note that the notion of the Democrats fixing anything about large, intrusive, expensive, debt-ridden government is laughable. But the media will sell that ridiculous notion, and clueless moderates will buy it, just as they did in 2008. The GOP brand will then be tarnished for a generation (“See, those Tea Party types just make things worse!”), and there will be plenty more fiddling while the country burns. The Tea Party types will likely try a third party, and given the structural problems in our system, that’s highly unlikely to work fast enough to make a difference.
Second, the very idea that we can predict who can or can’t beat Obama is just silly. I remember when Reagan “couldn’t beat Carter” because he was just a B movie actor. Bill Quick is fond of saying that his Pomeranian could beat Obama, and if things continue to move in the direction they’re going now, he’s clearly on target.
Just to pick out someone, let’s look at Hermann Cain. By conventional wisdom from establishment types, he can’t possibly beat Obama.
Well, why the hell not? He won the Florida straw poll decisively, so he seems to have something in his tank to motivate the base. Given that he’s black, suppose he changes the voting in that population from 90-10 Obama to 70-30 Obama. That alone would be enough to tie him even if Obama did as well among all other groups as he did in 2008. And Obama isn’t going to do nearly as well in most groups except for those firmly on the left wing.
I’m not endorsing Cain here. I’m just pointing out that playing the “who can beat Obama” game is silly, and could even cause catastrophic long term damage to the very party these people belong to.
Contra Mary Madalin, the important thing is to find a candidate who understands the depth of the crisis we face and has the courage to go to the wall against dozens of special interest groups to fix it. Without such a person, winning the White House is pointless and possibly counter-productive in the long term.
Of course, I’m not sure the DC establishment types care much. Matalin was married to James Carville last I heard, so if there was ever a couple deeply invested in business-as-usual in DC, it’s them. They and the other DC establishment types probably expect to be safely ensconced in their nice houses, drawing a guaranteed check, so they won’t suffer as much as the rest of us when TSHTF.
But that means we need to ignore anything and everything these people have to say.* We’ve been paying attention to them for decades, and where has it gotten us? The old saw about doing the same thing over and over comes to mind.
It’s time to throw the dice and try something different. It might not work, but it has a chance, and that’s better than the certain failure of DC politics as usual.
(*) The folks at National Review are some of the main ones who need to pay attention to this. The time for standing athwart history, yelling stop, is past. Only a serious U-turn will do us any good now. And we’ll never, ever get that from establishment GOP types.
In the online multiplayer game Final Fantasy, players must collaborate to get very far in the game. Individuals train up at the beginning by fighting weak mythical creatures, but taking on the powerful monsters they meet later requires teams with assigned roles.*
It’s all self-organizing; no one at the game maker assigns a player to a task. Players find roles they are good at, and team up with others who possess other skills.
Teams normally have an interesting role called a “tank”. This player has the capability to attract and hold a monster’s attention, absorb a tremendous amount of damage from the monster, and regenerate quickly from the damage. Other players use the distraction of the tank to attack the monster in various ways, and if the team does their job, eventually the monster succumbs to their combined efforts.
If you’re on a team with a tank, you don’t have to like the tank much. You just have to appreciate the tank’s capabilities. Your main objective is to subdue the monster.
In my mind, this maps very naturally to the role of Sarah Palin in bringing down the monster of collectivism.
OK, OK, this sounds like the kind of high-falutin’, silly comparison that people like Maureen Dowd use for a cheap column in the New York Times. But attend me: this kind of metaphor is going to work a lot better with someone in their twenties than something we old guys would naturally use from a 1960s TV show.
I came around to this comparison as a way of explaining my own opinions of Palin to the younger set that hangs around with my sons. It’s sometime hard for me to explain what I like about her, because I’m not overly impressed with Palin’s leadership potential or her deep thinking about the issues. I haven’t seen much evidence that she possesses leadership or deep thinking in any great quantity.**
I am impressed, though, with her intuition, her courage, and her resilience. She absolutely refuses to be intimidated by the usual post-modern, politically-correct leftist BS. She absorbs anything the self-righteous Olbermann types can throw at her, laughs it off, and “punches back twice as hard”, to follow the advice of a well-known leftist.
The constant, withering attacks from legacy media do cause some damage to her image, according to various surveys and polls. However, she has a core group that regards every such attack as proof that she’s right. These folks have been looking for someone of consequence to tell the left-leaning media to pi$$ up a rope for a long time. The fact that it’s a woman doing it just adds to the frission.
Of course, there’s a core group on the left that regards her as beneath contempt and laps up everything the legacy media hands out. They are joined by the pusillanimous establishment Republican types who still quiver in fear that the Washington Post might say something negative about them, and go into a fan-waving fainting spell when they see someone with enough self-confidence and guts to not give a whit what the lefties at the Post think.
Both groups attack her regularly. Amazingly, though, after the attacks die down and Palin gets back to her tweets and Facebook postings, the damage seems to dissipate. Her unfavorable numbers oscillate around, but the key is that they do oscillate; they don’t go negative and stay there. Plus, the more illogical and mean-spirited attacks sometimes have the opposite effect of damaging the attackers and helping Palin.
So my message to those on the right who are not especially enamored of Palin is this: you need her. She’s the tank on the team. The leftist monster must be slain.***
I’m not the only one thinking along these lines, of course. I first mentioned the tank comparison in a comment at Legal Insurrection last week, and William Jacobson seems to be on the same general page in his post yesterday. This is just my way of explaining why we need her, even if we don’t think she’s perfect.
I have no idea what her chances to become president are, and at this point it’s too early to care. She’s certainly not my top choice, but she comes in well ahead of Mitt “Plastic Fantastic” Romney. (Mike “Worst of Both Worlds” Huckabee isn’t even on the list; if the GOP is stupid enough to nominate him, they might as well prepare for a third party).
As long as she’s highlighting the dishonesty and mendacity of the left, the overall bias of the media, and the cowardice and privilege-protecting mewling of the establishment GOP, she has my support. It will take a team to do what has to be done, and we need a tank. She’s the best one we have right now.
(*) I’ve never playing Final Fantasy, but as the father of two teen boys, it’s a frequent topic of conversation around the house. Actual FF players, please forgive my no-doubt incomplete understanding of the game’s concepts.
(**) Not that these are necessary attributes to be elected president, based on some recent examples.
(***) For civility-obsessed idiots, that’s a metaphor.