The Republican Reform Problem

Among many other things, the fight for immigration reform is a test of whether the Republican Party is able to move in the direction of reform. I’m skeptical, and Ed Kilgore captures why with a post at the Washington Monthly that outlines the groups of Republicans who oppose reform for one reason or another. When you add up the different groups, it amounts to most Republicans. As he says, “The surprising thing isn’t that rank-and-file Republicans or most of their representatives in Washington aren’t in lockstep agreement with a move-to-the-center strategy, but that the belief in the chattering classes this is the obvious path ahead for the GOP remains so very strong.”

This is the lens through which to understand Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s bizarre op-ed earlier this week, in which he launched a vicious attack on the imaginary liberals who—he says—want “red meat to be rationed” and who think “factory-style government is a cool new thing.”

There have been a fair number of comparisons between the push for reform among conservative intellectuals and the similar push by Democrats in the late 1980s, after three consecutive presidential losses. And there are definitely ways in which the comparison works. The current conservative reformers, like their Democratic counterparts of twenty years ago, understand that their party is out of step and out of touch with the lives of many—if not most—Americans.

But here’s where the analogy falls apart. The most important thing about “The Politics of Evasion”—William Galston and Elaine Kamarck’s classic 1989 analysis of the national Democratic Party—wasn’t its conclusions. After a third consecutive presidential loss, it wasn’t hard to find Democrats, especially outside of Washington, were dissatisfied with the party’s direction, and eager to wrestle influence from powerful liberal interest groups.

No, what gave weight to Galston and Kamarck was their position; they were insiders. Their relentless attack on prevalent Democratic myths—that demographics or poor conditions could save the party’s presidential ambitions—came from within, from former national staffers who wanted a course correction. That combination of insider/outsider frustration is what gave legs to the Democratic reformers and their vehicle, the Democratic Leadership Council, which earned its influence by building support among activists, fundraisers and lawmakers at all levels of Democratic politics.

The Republican reformers of the current moment are just as tough in their diagnosis of the GOP, and no less committed to changing the party. But they lack institutional clout. This problem was nicely illustrated, not just with Jindal’s op-ed, but with another one from Michael Gerson of the Washington Post.

Gerson’s argument is straightforward: Social conservatives are a key part of the GOP coalition, and any attempt at reform must include them and their concerns. In practical terms, this means a Republican Party that maintains its hard line on abortion and reproductive rights, as well as its opposition to same-sex marriage (though that doesn’t preclude civil unions). At the same time—and taking a page from the Christian Democratic parties of Europe—it would work to improve the lives of working Americans. As he puts it:

The GOP will need to welcome new Americans and champion their economic and social mobility. It will need to remain true to the stable, pro-life convictions of its strongest supporters, while recognizing broad shifts taking place on gay rights among younger Americans, even within the Republican base. And it will need to speak to the concerns of working-class families who are the real swing voters in national elections. Conservative principles must be applied to new problems, such as stagnant wages, the loss of blue-collar jobs and routine educational failure.

This isn’t radical stuff, but it’s a step in the right direction for a Republican Party that seems disconnected from the concerns of most Americans. Contrast this with Jindal, who sees the very act of self-reflection as dangerous and self-defeating:

Republican political correctness is all the rage, and it’s all roughly the same: we need to stop being conservative… we need to abandon our principles (at least the ones that don’t poll well)… we need to let the smart guys in Washington pick our candidates…we need big data and analytics so we can optimize… we need to be more libertarian…we need to endorse abortion…we need fewer debates…and the list goes on.

The overall level of panic and apology from the operative class in our party is absurd and unmerited. It’s time to stop the bedwetting.

He goes on to cite the GOP’s major congressional victory in 2010—where it won control of the House of Representatives—as well as it’s performance at the gubernatorial level, where it holds thirty governorships (another product of the 2010 sweep). For Jindal, Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012 were a fluke—a product of circumstances. The country is conservative, and the Republican Party will prevail as long as it holds to its principles.

Jindal isn’t alone—his view may even constitute the majority one among Republican lawmakers and voters. And there’s no large group of Republican lawmakers opposing this dominant view.

The DLC, by contrast, was a serious faction in Democratic politics. Among its founders, members and leaders were governors—Chuck Robb of Virginia, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona, Bill Clinton of Arkansas—senators and congresspeople.

Change-hungry Republicans have no shortage of smart analysis—Grand New Party, a product of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, stands as a highlight—and convincing rhetoric; both Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, for instance, can speak well on the need to emphasize economic mobility and the concerns of ordinary people. But it’s hard (if not impossible) to find elected officials who will support the substance of reformist critiques. And with the ascendance of right-wing libertarianism as a “governing” philosophy, I doubt they’ll be able to find someone who can stand as an advocate.


Michael Gerson is worried that the party will move away from his positions (to the tune of the theme song from The Breakfast Club). Gerson has to recognize that the GOP doesn't want to loosen its embrace of the religious right. Ever since the efforts of Ronald Reagan and the indirect effect of the Southern Strategy transformed the party from one in which pro-choice views were acceptable to one in which being "pro-life" is an essential litmus test, the GOP has trembled at the thought of the religious right staying home or voting for a third party candidate. Now that faction makes its wishes known through primaries, and we get story after story of reactionary misogynistic statements from candidates and politicians who don't seem to understand that much of the country finds their views to fall into a spectrum between "wrong" and "repugnant".

If Gerson were genuinely concerned about reforming the party and winning elections, he wouldn't be insisting that specific litmus tests be retained. His column seems to be less about reforming the party, and more of a plea to reformers to never reconsider their commitment to the essential demands of the religious right even if they soften the party's views on subjects such as civil unions.

His criticism of Cameron's reform is misplaced. What was it James Carville said? Oh, yeah. "It's the economy, stupid." Had Cameron's austerity measures worked (or had he chosen an effective approach to Britain's economic problems rather than pushing a particular dogma) it is unlikely that we would be discussing his future. Gerson also glosses over the important distinction between a system in which the nation's leader is directly elected, and a U.K.-style parliamentary system. Gerson also seems to confuse the fact that many UKIP supporters have in the past voted for the Conservative Party with the idea that those voters are defecting from the Conservative Party. Granted, when it comes to winning elections, it makes little difference to the Conservative Party if they lose votes from people with strong or weak allegiance to the party.

UKIP's present role seems to be more that of the spoiler - like Pat Robertson, back in 1988. The risk to the Conservatives seems to be less that UKIP will win a slate of council seats, and more that they'll pull enough votes that the elections end up going to Labor. UKIP may be tolerant of statements many regard as gay-bashing, but its inherent focus is economic - withdraw from the EU, pull back from international trade regulation, cut welfare, and the like.

When you boil down his analysis, Gerson seems to be suggesting that if you pull away from the Tea Party to the point that they can no longer win Republican primary fights, they may create or vote for a third party - that may be true, but it has very little to do with social conservatism.

On a final point, the Republicans have created their own nightmare. They wedded themselves to certain "religious conservative" issues, elevated those issues to the national debate, and have worked very hard to keep them in the spotlight in one election after another. It would have been possible for Reagan and his heirs to fashion a Republican Party that was pro-life but accepting of economic conservatives, libertarians, and less extreme social conservatives who ranged from pro-choice to holding Condoleezza Rice's "agnosticism" on the issue. They found it more beneficial to make abortion rights a litmus test, to the point that so-called moderate, so-called reformers like Gerson would have kittens if they so much as tiptoed away from that absolutism.

Summarizing.........DLC good, GOP bad.

The GOP should put together an advisory conference of people like Jamelle... people like David Poof, Paul Krugman, Al Sharpton, Leonardo Dicaprio, and so on... people who sincerely want to get the Republicans back on track .

«for a Republican Party that seems disconnected from the concerns of most Americans.»

As Rove never tires to point out, what matters is vote-swings issues. The concerns of most Americans don't matter that much, because half of usians don't vote, and those who vote do so according to whichever main issue that swings their vote.

«The country is conservative, and the Republican Party will prevail as long as it holds to its principles.»

That's quite wrong and right: the country probably is not conservative, but voters overall are conservative, and swing voters (largely older women) are most conservative, because they think that owning a bit of property (housing, 401K) gives them interests aligned with those of big business, as Norquist has always said. Those interests are for lower wages, more immigration, higher inflation, in other words redistribute away from worker earnings and towards property owner rents.

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