Republicans have been scrambling since the election to figure out what they need to improve their standing with the public and appeal to the electorate of the future. Despite trumpeting Marco Rubio and his immigration platform in a shallow attempt to appeal to Hispanic voters, things have only gotten more dire since November. In part because of the sequester fight, the GOP’s approval ratings have plummeted. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, even a majority of registered Republicans disapprove of their congressional counterparts and Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s disapproval rating sits at a record high.
I think the problem is pretty straightforward: The GOP has become a party that’s almost allergic to holding specific, real, policy positions; instead, it’s substituted a blanket knee-jerk opposition to anything Barack Obama does, along with a series of symbolic “issues,” such as American exceptionalism or a rhetorical commitment to a balanced budget (without, for most of them, any policy to get them toward the goal).
In short, current Republican voters or candidates haven’t yet shown that they care very much about public policy.
A perfect illustration? The Conservative Political Action Conference's (CPAC) decision to invite Donald Trump to speak at its annual gathering rather than, say, someone like Chris Christie. While the New Jersey governor does have some policy positions that challenge conservative orthodoxy, his real sin was posing with Barack Obama and saying nice things about the president during Sandy recovery. Trump, on the other hand, has been all over the place on public policy, but can be counted on to make birther and teleprompter jokes. One of them is a real politician who has had to make real governing choices; the other, a joke. A movement which prefers the latter is unlikely to be debating about policy.
If Republicans want to be able to govern effectively, they’ll need to work out some policy preferences. That includes figuring out where they stand on many issues on which party actors probably differ, or others where it appears most party actors haven’t even realized they hold internally conflicted positions. Think, for example, of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats in 2009 didn’t just have a vague idea that they were for health-care reform; they had detailed policy proposals that had been hashed out by politicians, policy experts, and intraparty groups. By the time Democrats won unified control of government, they were ready to go—not only with the ACA, but with a long agenda of items. In the past, Republicans too have been ready to implement policy ideas; Ronald Reagan and a conservative Congress in 1981 were similarly well-prepared. But right now, Republicans don’t have anything like a detailed agenda; they don’t really even know what they like other than, again, some symbolism. Sometimes, parties are clear on the goals and just need experts to get the details in order, but sometime the best way for parties to get organized is to really fight these things out and force everyone involved to really think about where they stand and what conservative politics should mean 30 years after Reagan.
So what should Republicans be fighting about?
Deficits versus taxes
It’s pretty clear that Republicans are confused, to say the least, about their budget priorities. This is the most obvious fight to be had, because the drive to keep taxes low no matter what simply contradicts the effort to close budget deficits. Republicans would be well served if this was hashed out as soon as possible. Both positions are perfectly legitimate, but Republicans are hurt by their failure to choose between them.
Dramatic versus “normal” budget cuts
The GOP needs this fight. Do Republicans really want a government that does most of the things that the current government does, but trims back in a few places? Or does it want a return to what government, or at least domestic government, was like before the New Deal?
Neocons vs. Realists
Do Republicans really want to reject the traditions associated, most recently, with George H.W. Bush? If they don’t have the fight now, odds are that it will happen around some foreign-policy crisis of the future—which in turn will be driven by the electoral politics of the moment.
What to Do with Libertarians?
Republicans haven’t come to terms with their libertarian or libertarian-leaning faction and their unorthodox views on many issues, from drugs to foreign policy. They need to.
An internal debate on a social issue would make it clear both that such challenges are acceptable within the party and that there’s at least potentially a price to be paid for moving farther and farther towards the fringe. Perhaps contraception? Might work, although it would be complicated by the likely still-taboo “Obamacare”—that is, it might be hard for a candidate to endorse contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act not because of conservative opposition to birth control, but because of opposition to the ACA. Still, given the overwhelming support Americans have for birth control, there must be some way for some Republicans to stand up for it.
That’s five debates worth having.
Other than lack of interest, it’s not clear why there’s so little public fighting about policy divisions. Perhaps Republicans are better at resolving these things among themselves; perhaps they are in general more hierarchical, and therefore less open to challenge of the status quo; perhaps there’s some other reason. But it certainly appears to me to be true.
So even though there really should be a Republican fight over health care, I expect mostly ritual Obama-bashing and not much more (see conservative columnist Philip Klein on that one). There should be a Republican fight about energy and about the environment, but I don’t expect one. There should be a Republican fight about torture and civil liberties, but I don’t expect it to extend beyond the libertarian fringe. That just doesn’t seem to be how Republicans do things.
Instead, expect plenty more of Donald Trump and, even now, a fair amount of Sarah Palin. And while it’s good for those who are making money from selling merchandise to conservatives, no one really thinks it’s any good for the Republican Party.