Monday, December 10, 2012

Politicians, Change, and the GOP

How do parties change?

Over the weekend, my Salon column was about the GOP candidate rollouts last week, and how unimpressive they were on policy. I mean, not that they promoted foolish policies, but that they mostly don't really do policy at all. Which follows on the Romney campaign, which also gave up early on policy.  I contrast it with George W. Bush, who actually did campaign on public policy ideas. It's really worse than that; the current GOP not only isn't very good at devising public policy solutions, but has mostly given up on recognizing problems. Yes, they did figure out that unemployment has been a significant problem over the last few years (John Boehner's frequent refrain about "where are the jobs?" is quite appropriate for an out-party leader during a time of high unemployment), but even there they seem to forget about employment for months at a time, and of course their proposals to deal with it are identical to their policy response to pretty much everything since 1978 or so.

Where I see last week's efforts by Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Bobby Jindal as examples of a general GOP problem, Jonathan Chait has an item about Rubio today which talks about the Florida Senator as particularly skilled at figuring out which way the GOP is going and jumping in front of the parade.

It seems to me that one big question here is whether there really is any room for a presidential candidate to lead in a somewhat different direction. I don't know that there is! But presumably there is a fairly large Republican constituency which supports conservative policies but isn't very pleased with the Rush Limbaugh/Fox News version of the policy.

A candidate ready to appeal to that constituency would probably need to be as pure as possible on policy and past history going I've said many times, what's wrong with the Republican Party isn't that they are in a simple sense just too conservative.

But I suspect that there is room for a political entrepreneur who could find a space involving orthodox ideology, policy innovation, and a pointed rejection of some part of the uglier or more nihilistic portions of the conservative marketplace. I suspect there are quite a few Republican party actors who would prefer a party less subservient to whatever turns out to sell to the rubes who buy Glenn Beck's latest products, and plenty of primary voters at least potentially willing to follow them.

Or at least, so I suspect. The problem with the last two rounds of GOP candidates have been that they've struggled to meet the standards of policy orthodoxy, and so they were poorly positioned to challenge the rest of it. And I don't think that was just bad luck; part of the problem is that policy orthodoxy shifts all the time, thus making it hard for politicians to keep up (see, for example, the way that shifts on climate made lots of politicians who took positions in the last decade scramble around to prove their orthodoxy in 2012. Not to mention health care reform). Indeed: that instability is one of the reasons that I suspect a lot of party actors are ready for some pushback.

Or maybe not; perhaps anyone who tries to take on the crazy would be slapped back down. It should make for an interesting couple of election cycles.

At any rate -- entrepreneurial candidates who can find ways to rearrange party coalitions like that should be one of the key ways that parties can change. Not the only way; it presumably could come from shifts in the size or importance or allegiance of party-aligned groups, or from activists putting issues on the party agenda. But surely one way. And perhaps the most likely path for the GOP out of their current problems.


  1. Well, if anyone has the conservative bona fides, the deep pockets to fund a significant campaign, and a general reputation for being reasonable, it's Jon Huntsman.

    So, keep an eye on him. My money says it can't be done right now.

    1. I was going to talk about why Huntsman was very much *not* someone likely to be able to do it, but I didn't want the post to go all that long.

      Just because Huntsman was the wrong person to try (and as far as I could tell wasn't any good at it anyway) doesn't mean that it can't be done.

    2. JB: I always thought Huntsman was quite orthodox in his conservative policy positions; he simply cultivated an unorthodox demeanor and set of cultural signifiers. In some ways that makes him perfectly positioned: he's a completely superficial modernizer, all surface rhetoric, little changed in policy commitments.

    3. Ok, Jonathan, why not Huntsman?

    4. Ah, I don't even remember Huntsman's policy deviations...I'm pretty sure he was off the reservation on gay rights somehow, and he had a bunch of problems on foreign relations, of course.

      But of course on top of that going to work for the Obama Administration. Granted, it's not a policy thing, but it's a lot more than just a matter of being culturally or symbolically a little off; it's a legitimately (fairly) big deal -- it really makes him the wrong guy to go in and tell Republicans they're doing it all wrong.

    5. For the holy warriors, yes. For the theoretically more moderate Republicans, no. He spoke of it as serving his country, and for him it was.

      I think that the Republicans who can bring the party back are going to have to be patriots of the first order. They have to hammer into the heads of their fellow Republicans that service to one's country, and doing what's right for the country, are more important than winning the news cycle.

  2. I would love to see the GOP embrace real sensible-but-conservative policies. But, ya know, I'm having trouble coming up with actual policies that I think it makes sense for them to adopt.

    Since the GOP abandoned the concept of actual governance the Dems have seized the center pretty solidly. It doesn't help that taxes are really low and the Dems pretty much want to keep them that way. Who would have guessed that a Dem president would be fighting to make the Bush tax cuts permanent for 98% of Americans?

    On the big issues of the day: health care, climate change, immigration, deficit reduction/tax/spending policy... its hard to come up with a policy that is:

    1) Not the same as the Democratic position
    2) To the right of the Democratic position
    3) Actually a reasonable idea

    Can anyone think of any?

    I would love to see the GOP present themselves as a real, policy-driven, alternative. I just don't see how they do it.

    1. This is bugging me, now, because they have all those tanks thinking away, and you're right, I'm stuck too.

      Infrastructure? Nope.

      Intellectual property reform?

      Stimulating American investment? Nope.

      Prison reform?

    2. swain:
      I think there are (or were) sensible positions to the right of Dems on some of these issues.

      Immigration: more enforcement (though, in reality, Obama has done that, they can still preach it) and something like military vets and people with degrees get a path; everyone else here goes to the back of the line for citizenship apps. More stringent employer-side enforcement. This strikes me as somewhat to the right of Obama (rhetorically), but not as casually heartless/racist as 'self-deportation.'

      Climate change: here, the problem is that the Dems moved to their "reasonable" position: cap & trade. That was more of a conservative idea, with liberals more in favor of command & control or carbon taxes. However, the Dems moved to cap and trade in an effort to actually get something the GOP is left with nothing.

      Health care: again, Obama proposed it: individual mandate. They can still keep pushing tort reform; it doesn't actually fix much, but it is/seems sensible, and they can claim it.

      Budget: actually, the idea of slow reform by slightly reining in entitlements fits the bill. Honestly, with budgeting, just adopting numbers slightly to the right of Obama would work. They'd be different, to the right, and somewhat reasonable. Within that mix could be more tax cuts than Dems, or more military spending, or more entitlement cuts. However, right now, they propose going off the reservation on all 3.

      However. To the broader point you're making, the modern GOP is mostly bereft of ideas that are distinct from Dems and not batshit crazy. The problem is two-fold; Dem centrism (climate, budget, health), and base craziness (immigration). Only on immigration can they really propose something different from the Dems and be reasonable.

    3. I disagree with you all, but I don't have examples...because Republicans and conservatives have generally retreated from offering them.

      But, yeah, I'll stick to the idea that there's plenty of policy space between where Dems are and insanity, on whatever issue one chooses. I think it's just hard for liberals to see that in general, and in particular hard for anyone to see it when no one is actually proposing policies in that space.

    4. Well, I suppose on HCR it might be the Whole Foods plan (high deductible catastrophic plans supplemented by health savings accounts). But I think that brings us to the issue Josh Barro has pointed out. The GOP does not so much have a problem with lack of sane policy alternatives as it does with painting itself, on issue after issue, into a tight space where it cannot move without either violating fixed principles or angering powerful interest groups or both. On HCR, for instance, any realistic policy to honestly address the issues involved means either spending a lot of money, thus violating standing principle, or taking measures to suppress expense, which means suppressing profits and salaries in the health care sector and running afoul of powerful GOP lobbies.

      I really think the key to much of GOP disfunction is avoidance and denial. It is not that conservatives are cruel or stupid as individuals, it's just that they are in a trap where any movement toward realistic policy means an enormous amount of pain -- pain from friends turning on you, pain from anger and argument, pain from loss of money and support, pain wherever you look. It is all too human to turn one's back on that prospect and hope fervently that it all just goes away.

  3. The problem with some big GOP reformer in my view goes back to about Max Weber, that is the GOP peruses the Weberian "ethic of ultimate ends" in politics with a vengeance while ignoring the idea of "the ethic of responsibility." They are constantly pursuing their overall goals in a very ruthless sort of way, from trying to make it harder for groups that disagree with them to vote to trying to create an artificial default crisis to get policy concessions from Obama. And I think that when someone is labeled "more conservative" it's not that they are necessarily more interested in say limiting the role of government, it's that they persue these goals in a less and less responsible way. So you are "more conservative" if say you want to deliberatly create a soverign debt crisis to try and get political concessions, but that's just irresponsibility it's not being "more conservative." If you look back on Huntsmdan one thing you will see is that he was labeled a moderate in the GOP just because he didn't take as confrontational a tone as people like Santorum. But as Alex Pareene recently pointed out Huntsman's policy stance were worse (that is more conservative) from a liberal point of view. For example he wanted to end the earned income tax credit and use that money to reduce the taxes on things like stock dividend. That is he wanted to raise taxes on the working poor, and lower them on the very rich.

    So if some policy entrepreneur wants to make the GOP more responsible, he will be labeled a moderate, regardless of what their policy ideas are and then they will be drive out of the party. There's the problem in a nutshell.

  4. I suspect there are quite a few Republican party actors who would prefer a party less subservient to whatever turns out to sell to the rubes who buy Glenn Beck's latest products, and plenty of primary voters at least potentially willing to follow them.

    There's an imperfect natural experiment for precisely this idea, though I suspect its not the one you had in mind: Ron and Rand Paul. Though the Pauls may not fit the rest of the outline of the post, they're not bad as instances of Republicans ideologically distinct from the machine and unapologetically so.

    What happened to the Pauls in the Republican MSM will probably also happen to the idealized entrepreneur in the open of this post. The machine will 'support' him, more or less, until he appears on NPR praising Dennis Kucinich's anti-war stance (as Ron Paul did the other day), after which the machine will do with the entrepreneur as it did with the Pauls: it won't criticize, it will just act as if he doesn't exist.

    As a result, and with all due respect to fans of the Pauls, once the machine decides our entrepreneur doesn't exist, he pretty much won't.

  5. Another thought: perhaps the GOP is suffering an existential crisis in response to the society moving against its baser instincts (i.e. toward diversity), somewhat similar to the existential crisis the Democrats faced when society turned against their baser instincts 40+ years ago (i.e. toward the glory of global capitalism).

    Eventually, the left found they could find friends in global capitalists, even if it caused them some painful divorces with union cronies. Eventually, the right will see the opportunity in diversity as well.

    Maybe the existential angst on the right is more painful to watch because it is played out on a much more hyper-vigilant media stage.

    1. By "union cronies" I assume that you mean "good-paying jobs for working Americans".

  6. There is no significant electoral market for non-crazy conservative policy positions.

    The right-wing media's influence on the GOP has largely ridded the GOP of the non-crazies.


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