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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Republicans, Reform and Ideology

I was gratified to see that Patrick Ruffini of NextRight quickly responded to my post about the “Rebuild the Party” manifesto that he has been instrumental in drafting and promoting among Republicans. His main argument is that the notable absence of any ideological-debate component in his scheme for the revival of the GOP is a matter of “division of labor”: it’s not his job, and his suggestions for infrastructure building, internet-based organizing, and new faces are steps Republicans should take no matter where they wind up on ideology or policy.
That’s fair enough, though I must take issue with his “so’s-your-old-man” argument that “no such ideological introspection or self-criticism was present in the Obama victory.” Actually, there was a pretty robust debate throughout the primaries about Obama’s ideology, ranging from his “theory of change” to his positions on FISA, Pakistan, and residual troops in Iraq. And there was some distinct unhappiness among a decent number of progressives about his adoption of market-based approaches to both universal health care and climate change, and his refusal to categorically call for repealing No Child Left Behind or systematically overturning existing trade agreements.
But more importantly, the main point of my post was that Democrats have undergone a period of “ideological introspection” that’s gone on for many years, and that preceded and continued during the “netroots” reforms of this decade, while Republicans as a whole haven’t really reconsidered their ideological underpinnings since the late 1970s, other than to accuse GOP officeholders of various forms of heresy or infidelity. And the problem with Ruffini’s “division of labor” argument is that few if any other influential Republicans are dealing with the issues that he considers somebody else’s business.
Indeed, the dominant point of view in Republican circles right now is exactly what it has been since at least 1976: money and mechanics aside, there’s nothing wrong with the GOP that a more rigorous application of an essentially unchanging conservative ideology can’t cure, and if Republicans stray from that ideology, they deserve to lose. Just today, RedState’s Erick Erickson, an early and influential endorser of the “Rebuild the Party” plan, expressed this sentiment very clearly:

The conservative movement stagnated because it became, in essence, a component of the Republican Party and let the standard bearer of the party, George Bush, (not to mention Republican leaders in Congress) drive the agenda. When it became abundantly apparent that Bush was not driving the conservative agenda (hat tip to Rush Limbaugh who for years has been saying Bush is not a movement conservative) a lot of the conservative movement had become entrenched in the bureaucracy.
So we arrive where ostensibly conservative organizations are pushing the bailout scheme and socialized medicine programs.
It’s not a reset that we need. It is not new ideas, per se, that we need. It is a conservative movement that purges the dead wood and returns to pushing a conservative, not a Republican status quo, agenda. The ideas stand the test of time. They may need some dusting off, but time does not invalidate the idea. You do not raze a house with rotten beams. You tear out the rotten beams and support the rest of the house

You’d think by now that conservatives like Erickson would be wondering why they keep arriving over and over at this same juncture, where the “politicians”–whether it’s Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George W. Bush, generations of Republican congressional leaders, and even Ronald Reagan at one juncture–sell out the “movement.” Is it, as David Stockman suggested in the title of his famous lament over the disappointments of the early Reagan years, just a matter of “the Triumph of Politics”?
I articulated my own theory on this phenenomenon in a post on conservative self-deception a few weeks ago.
Here’s the short version: there is not, and never has been, a popular majority that supports “core conservative principles” as defined by such goals as a major scaling-back of New Deal safety net programs, abolition of the federal role in major areas of governance, an elimination of progressive taxation and/or taxes on capital, the re-criminalization of abortion, or imposition of U.S. world-wide hegemony by force of arms. Republican politicians understand this, so they take what they can get and live with the rest. These “compromises” with basic political realities predictably lead, again and again, to large federal budget deficits, unpopular and poorly waged wars, nasty skirmishing on cultural issues, and above all, a large assortment of big government programs and agencies for which conservative pols can find no useful purpose other than as vehicles for vote-buying and patronage. This isn’t so much a matter of ideological infidelity or personal “corruption” as it is the natural result of entrusting government to people who get themselves elected now and then–typically under false flags of “reform” or “compassion” or “strength”–when Democrats screw up, but then have no real agenda for governing that the public will accept.
So here we are yet again. Every time George W. Bush sought to govern as a “true conservative”–e.g., trying to privatize Social Security, save the life of Terry Schiavo, make the Middle East a pro-Western paradise, leave emergency management to the state and local governments of Louisiana, rely on suppy-side economics to avoid fiscal calamity, govern as though the Democratic Party did not exist other than as a punching-bag–he failed. Had he been more rigorously a “true conservative,” he would have failed even more dramatically. And yet we are being told that he, like his father, failed only because he never bought into conservatism in the first place.
This conservative interpretation of events is getting very old by now. And if they do not at least reconsider it, then all the internet savvy and outreach and infrastructure and money and young, diverse candidates on earth will not save them, and they’ll start the cycle all over again next time Democratic mistakes give them the opportunity to govern.

One comment on “Republicans, Reform and Ideology

  1. thegreatwildebeest on

    I would hesitate to say that there can be no roll back of New Deal-style programs; the evisceration of welfare by Clinton in the 90’s, as well as many of the haphazard deregulation he helped spur on, contribute to the crisis we have no as well as the rising levels of inequality we have in this country. The fact that Bush bungled it more is not an especially convincing argument.
    But the larger point of the article still stands; when you don’t believe government can solve anything, what, exactly, are you supposed to sell to voters when they are looking to see a solution out of someone? While its true that larger systemic issues confront third party or outsider candidates in elections and primaries, what does it say when Ron Paul, whom raised more than his other primary opponents, came in fourth in most states? Clearly, despite the constant cries from Republicans, and in the Libertarian Party and Constitution Party in the the third party realm, there is little actual desire for any of their policies, or lack thereof.


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