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.