No Need for New Ideas

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina speaking at the 2012 Liberty Political Action Conference in Chantilly, Virginia.

One way to read Jim DeMint’s departure from the Senate is as representative of a split between Tea Party Republicans—who hated Mitt Romney and insist on a return to absolute intransigence—and their more establishment-minded counterparts, who have begun to resign themselves to the fact that President Obama has leverage and political capital on his side. I think this is a little exaggerated—there’s still plenty of synergy between the two wings of the party—but there is truth in the analysis. Writing at Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi uses this take to make a smart point about where the Republican Party currently stands, it where it could go:

[T]he Democrats were facing a similarly bitter split not too long ago, when their party’s mainstream unforgivably backed Bush’s idiotic Iraq invasion and then saddled us with a war-waffling presidential candidate in John Kerry. And just like the Republicans after Romney, the Democrats after the Kerry loss felt hopeless, depressed and self-hating – you heard a lot of “Screw it, I’m moving to Iceland” talk. Four years later, the party sold the identical Kerry policy package in an exciting new Obama wrapper, and suddenly people were partying in the streets. You just never know how these things will turn out.

I’m not sure that Barack Obama offered a package identical to the one presented by John Kerry—in part because the party had moved to the left on issues like health care—but the basic point is correct: Substantive reform isn’t necessary to the GOP’s future chances.

For as much as the Republican Party is harmed by the lack of a positive agenda outside of tax cuts and deregulation—and for as much as it seems incapable of even acknowledging core problems like mass unemployment and high inequality—it still has a fair shot at winning the 2014 midterm elections (with additional seats in the House and Seat), and a decent shot at winning the White House in 2016, given how voters tend to reject more than eight years of governance by a single party.

As long as the GOP can offer the appearance reform—by placing the same ideas in new, multicultural packaging (see: Marco Rubio)—it can likely convince the public—to say nothing of key elites—that it deserves power. To wit, the mere mention of poverty by Rubio and Paul Ryan was enough for moderate Republicans David Brooks and Ross Douthat to declare a new era of reform.

In four years, there will only be more of this, even as the new crop of GOP candidates offer the same ideas that have defined Republican policymaking for the past thirty years.

Comments

I hope this is a subtle attempt to lull Republicans into a false sense of security, because I don't think it's true. (Delete this post if so, I don't want to ruin your scheme.) Four years from now all the demographic changes that made 2012 an uphill battle will have gotten worse: the electorate will be composed of more minorities and more people born after after 1970. These demographic advantages will reduce the Republicans' natural constituencies by about 2% of the electorate by 2016. Republicans lost the tipping-point Electoral College state by 4.7% this year, which means they'd have to gain 6.7% on their 2012 showing, in which they ran one of the party's most centrist and deep-pocketed figures against an incumbent residing over a deep recession. Can Republicans really expect such a drastic improvement without significant policy retooling?

Nominating Marco Rubio would also not be a magic bullet for the GOP. Part of the party's problem with minorities is that white voters don't want to be associated with a racist party, but these voters trend socially liberal anyway and are unlikely to defect to the GOP unless it also reforms on those issues. The much bigger ethnic problem for the GOP is that 70+% of Hispanic Americans are voting for Democrats. While nominating Cuban-American Rubio seems like a good way to win over these voters, it's important to consider that most Hispanic voters are of Mexican origin -- especially in Western swing states like Electoral College tipping-point Colorado. In 2008, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin for VP rankled many pro-choice women who thought the party was condescending to them on electoral optics at the expense of their preferred policies. Similarly, if Republicans nominate a light-skinned non-Mexican Latino who has gone on record opposing the DREAM Act, they could easily alienate the Hispanic voters they need most.

I'll believe David Brooks and Ross Douthat are moderate Republicans when they disagree with the GOP once, ever, about anything when the chips are down.

"voters tend to reject more than eight years of governance by a single party."

I would question that. GHW Bush won easily in 1988, after eight years of the GOP controlling the White House. Gore won the popular vote in 2000, so it wasn't "the voters" who rejected him. (And the current Electoral College unlike the one of 2000 has a Democratic, not Republican structural advantage--to win, Romney would have had to carry at least one state he lost by over five percentage points, even though he lost the natioanl popular vote by less than four points.) And of course if we go further back in history there are other examples (1928, 1908).

In every case where the voters decided to change the party controlling the White House after eight years, one can point to some specific reason. Most obviously, in 2008 the economy was collapsing. In 1976 there was Watergate, the Nixon pardon, etc. (Also, the Democrats were running their first candidate from the Deep South in ages, and swept many southern states they had lost in the previous few elections and would lose in the future.) In 1960, there had been a serious recession in 1957-58 followed by a mild one in 1960.

In 2014 the Republicans may indeed gain in the Senate without doing much rethinking, simply because the map that year wil be favorable to them (though it also was in 2012...) But the idea that they can win in 2016 without more than cosmetic changes--based on a supposed eight year tendency to throw out the existing party--is quite dubious.

I'd echo RickMassimo's point. The idea that Brooks and Douthat were giving an unbiased opinion on the "new era of reform" is risible. They are little more than propagandists interested in creating just the "appearance of reform" that JB identifies as necessary for Republican rehabilitation.

I'd also point out that Taibbi's suggestion that Obama and Kerry were indistinguishable in terms of policy is a bad misreading of political history. JB rightly points out that healthcare reform was a major area of difference; I'd also point out that Obama unequivocally opposed the Iraq war before the war even started. That represents a fair bit of difference from Kerry, who, of course, voted fortune war before changing to opposition. And, let's not forget that Obama beat Clinton largely because of his Iraq war credentials. Taibbi's desire to paint Obama as a conventional Democratic establishmentarian centrist has led his analysis astray in this case.

That Brooks and Douthat are a-flutter is relatively meaningless. What matters is whether GOP candidates actually offer something different and more appealing to voters, and whether they continue or stop saying batshit crazy things. If they don't offer actual improvements, rather than rephrasing current offerings, and stop with the crazy, it won't matter.

As for DeMint, the tea-leaf reading seems unnecessary. He may just be tired of being the third-poorest Senator, and like the idea of a million dollars a year.

I don't think Bouie is right about this. Some candidate preferences are based upon policy (eg. Democratic support for Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008 because of Iraq). Others are based upon deep-seated loyalty to a brand. There is nothing the Democrats could do to win the votes of tea party regulars, for instance, or FOX News viewers, or Anne Coulter fans, or even followers of Anne Althouse. And what seems to be happening is non-white voters and voters under the age of 35, are developing a strong loyalty to the Democratic brand. I don't think it's difficult at all to see why this is happening: all of the "regular America" birth certificate anti-gay talk finally blew up on the GOP -- and only because of the changing demographic composition of the country, because all of these talking points still work with the target audience.

So if you're Latino, female, and thirty, and you start out thinking that the Republicans are a bunch of crazy bigots, or at least in hock to them, what is it going to take to win you over? More than a simple makeover. One reason I'm skeptical people like Rubio and Jindal can do this job, btw, is because all of the GOP minority bench, so to speak, have something in their personal stories which makes them "acceptable" to the GOP base while distancing them from others who share their racial/ethnic background. There is nothing wrong with Jindal's being an evangelical Christian, for instance, but to someone who is of South Asian descent and Hindu Jindal's ability to serve as a symbol of inclusion is basically unproven. Ie., to do this he has to take on the religious nativism of the GOP base -- something no Republican candidate has been willing to do.

My prediction: Obama, amazingly, has broken the back of the GOP's Southern Strategy, and national politics is going to look a lot like California's for the next twenty years or so. The Republican party won't be able to reform itself until enough of Sarah Palin's "Real Americans" pass from the scene. Not that the Democratic party deserves much credit for this happening now -- this is mostly the result of demographic changes. But I'll label this scenario "LBJ's Revenge", because it's really the Republican's discovering that the advantage they gained in 1968 due to the struggles over segregation couldn't last forever. They rode that wave and now they have to pay the price.

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