away from Joe=towards success?

Reihan links approvingly to this piece  by Patrick Ruffini, as does James. It’s well-written, smart, as Ruffini’s work usually is.

But I don’t know, man.

Ruffini excoriates the GOP for becoming the party of Joe the Plumber, saying

This culture of identity politics means we get especially defensive about the Liberal Majority’s main lines of attack, because we think of our position as inherently fragile. The one that spawned the Cult of Joe the Plumber was the meme that Republicans want tax cuts only for the rich and that we don’t stand for working Americans. When find a highly visible figure who contradicts this notion, we swing into action. And we go on to press the argument to the point to absurdity, replete with plungers and custom “Joe” yard signs to prove our working class chops. These are the not the marks of a movement that assumes it operates (or should operate) from a position of political and cultural supremacy.

Ruffini, it seems, thinks that the problem with conservatism is with its cultural outsider branding, which allows liberals to get halfway towards their political goals through pure assumption. He writes, “Put another way, Republicans thrive as the party of normal Americans — the people in the middle culturally and economically….When you think about it, a majority built around this solid middle-American base should beat the disjointed liberal rich/poor coalition.” (emphasis his). Well, that’s a comforting thought for conservatives. Is it true that the Republicans are the party of the solid middle-American base? I don’t think it is.

Part of the reason I grew to regret being so intemperate in my response to Robert Stacy McCain, beyond simply being dragged to that level, is that my post lost sight of what to me was the point in the first place: McCain, like Ruffini here– and, I fear, Reihan and James as well– seemed entirely assured of one central idea, the notion that the standard conservative economic message is deeply popular with the American people and a political winner. If conservatives can just argue conservative principles, the idea seems to be, they will win. Ruffini and McCain are obviously more sophisticated than Glenn Beck, but that ultimately is the Glenn Beck message: the Republicans just need to move back towards core conservative economic values.

I confess I am consistently confused by this assumption, and by the great faith so many conservatives put in it. As I have said many times, Americans love the idea of small government. They just don’t seem to actually care about shrinking the government outside of rhetoric. Americans love their entitlements. They like having an FDA and a host of other regluatory bodies. They dont want to reduce the military budget significantly. They want, and have come to expect, an awful lot of things from government. The fact that they say they want small government means no more than the fact that they say they want a balanced budget. It’s theater, and it’s rhetoric. It’s not founded on anything politically actionable. I’m sorry, but people who say that they want small government yet refuse entitlement reform and a shrinking military budget are not to be taken seriously. They are not dedicated to the idea to the degree that they are actually willing to sacrifice to make it a reality.

What’s more, the considerable advantage conservatives have in rhetoric, it seems to me, is slipping. I think that more and more people are recognizing their little hypocrisies when it comes to the size of government. Can anyone imagine a politician delivering a speech as straightfoward and unapologetic about growing government than Obama’s from the other night? The goal posts are shifting.

Ruffini mentions some demographics: “We are naturally the party of the middle, and we don’t need gimmicks to prove it. Demographically, Democrats rely on being the party of the upper sixth and the lower third, while Republicans tend to do better with everyone in between. ” Let’s say for the purpose of discussion that this is true. Ruffini doesn’t mention another kind of demographics: the fact that the center of the Republican power base, the white male, is an ever-shrinking portion of the American electorate. And I can’t help but feel like this assumption, the assumption that the middle class– the people– is a white and Christian and straight bloc is a big part of the problem that the GOP has making inroads into racial minorities and women. Not that I think Ruffini would ever intentionally exclude those people, and not that such exclusion would make even a lick of sense from an electoral standpoint. But that’s the point. There’s no intention to it, no malice, from most Republicans. It’s just a thoughtlessness about the changing American racial landscape that continues to doom the GOP when it comes to Hispanic or black Americans. “We are the middle, and the middle is white and Christian.” No wonder so many feel divorced from the coalition of the right.

Ruffini and those like him are doing important work in steering the Republican party away from the naked identity politics that Joe the Plumber represents. The question is not whether this is worth doing but whether it actually leads to the electoral bonanza many of them are so sure will follow. At the end of the post, Ruffini says “We need to be confident, like the left is, that we are the natural governing party because our ideas are in alignment with basic American principles, and quit treating middle class, working class, or rural Americans like an interest group to be mollified by symbolic, substance-free BS.” I agree completely. The question is whether a party fresh out of new economic ideas, squeezed by demographics and facing a terrible self-inflicted wound to its brand has anything else to bargain with.

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22 thoughts on “away from Joe=towards success?

  1. What struck me about this piece is that Ruffini seems to think that there’s something wrong with constantly venerating Reagan and every Reaganism, but at the same time thinks conservatives should instead adopt the Newt Gingrich approach. So, what? Give up the ghost of Reagan and adopt the ghost of Gingrich? He’s spot-on with his critique of gimmicks, but beyond that there’s not really any substantive argument for some new, better approach. I think there is a lot of room to be the party of middle-America, but it’s going to take a lot more than re-branding.

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  2. When you think about it, a majority built around this solid middle-American base should beat the disjointed liberal rich/poor coalition.

    Except….the middle is shrinking.
    instead of being 4std away from the mean, it’s 2std and shrinkin’ to 1.
    Perhaps it looked like 32/50/18 in 2004……now it looks more like 32/28/40…..and the increase is shaved from the higher SES higher IQ right side of the distribution…..college educated and the high IQ youth are two lost demographics the GOP can ill afford to lose.
    Interesting to overlay SES, education, or political affiliation over the bellcurve of IQ

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  3. ED – when he talks about Gingrich, he’s not saying the party should be “like” Gingrich temperamentally or even ideologically, he’s saying that Gingrich’s 80% issues are issues around which conservatives can rally and which will have appeal to the vast majority of Americans (literally, 80%). Whatever you may think of Gingrich personally, this strategy has a lot of merit to it, and something similar to it is generally credited as playing a huge role in the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress (the Contract with America was simply a statement of positions behind which conservatives were united and which had supermajority appeal amongst the electorate as a whole).

    Anyways, I’m glad Freddie brought Ruffini’s post up because otherwise I would have done so (when I get the chance, I’ll get a full response up on this). I mostly agree with Ruffini , but I think the 80% solution is a short-term fix at best….hopefully, more later.

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  4. “And I’m not sure the 80% strategy is even all that accurate to begin with, and certainly the substance of that strategy needs to be overhauled entirely…”

    Please elaborate. I have my problems with the 80/20 issues that Gingrich wants to emphasize, but I don’t doubt that the polling data to support them is accurate.

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  5. I too think the 80% strategy is magical thinking.
    It is reminiscent of the trope– ” America is a CENTER RIGHT nation”.
    Apparently, we are actually a center left nation, pace 2008.
    More campfire songs.

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  6. And also….

    “We need to be confident, like the left is, that we are the natural governing party because our ideas are in alignment with basic American principles, and quit treating middle class, working class, or rural Americans like an interest group to be mollified by symbolic, substance-free BS.”

    Is it really possible that Ruffini doesn’t understand that a mob imposing religious mores on other citizens is simply not in alignment with basic American principles?
    The socon agenda is the foul black gangreneous limb of conservatism.
    “Reform” conservatism cannot exist without an amputation.

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  7. Mark, ED,

    Speaking to the Gingrich verses Reagan notion…. I think where Gingrich excelled was that, at least intially, he wasn’t leading an opposition movement, he was leading a alternative movement. The Contract with America was a master stroke because it spelled out precise alternatives to the current policies and made specific promises. Reagan was very good at speaking to the abstract (which is why the Obama comparisons). As the opposition that wants to be a viable alternative, we have to offer clear policy proposals. We aren’t currently doing that. Selecting ‘80%’ issues is a great way to start building a successful alternative platform.

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  8. Mike: In many ways, I agree with you, which is why I think the Gingrich idea is not a bad one. I just don’t think it can be more than a temporary band-aid. But even if it’s just a temporary fix, it’s not something that has any real downside to it. I think it suffers from another shortcoming, which is that the economic crises has placed the public’s focus squarely on issues where an 80/20 consensus is just about impossible. Still, like I said, it doesn’t have any downside, and it at least gets the Republicans talking about things that are relevant and don’t just sound like tired old cliches.

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  9. Mark, I agree that 80/20 is really hard right now given the political environment ( the search for relevance on the Right and the sense of mandate on the Left). I also think big legislation often breeds partisanship.

    I had hoped back in November that Obama would roll out elements of the stimulus / economic recovery in several accelerated phases. Give them all catchy names like Recovery 1, Recovery 2, etc (although that kind of sounds like space probes). That way we could debate each phase separately and then I think 80/20 moments are more possible. Lumping it all into one huge bill almost guarantees we come down along party lines.

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  10. Freddie, you couldn’t be more right. Talking about small govt when the combined federal and state budgets last year, let alone this year, totalled $4.5 trillion is just another one of those myths we are so totally in love with in the US. $4.5 trillion is several times the govt spending of any other sovereign state in the world. As is frequently pointed out our military expenditures IN TOTAL are more than the rest of the world combined. Is this the sort of small govt were talking about. Then ask the American electorate over 65 to give up SS when for 80% of them it’s AT LEAST 50% of their total income…for 50% of them it’s 100% OF THEIR TOTAL INCOME. In short the whole conservative perception of the problem is skewed. But then conservatism seems to have lost the faculty of being clear eyed about things.

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  11. Not that I think Ruffini would ever intentionally exclude [racial minorities and women]

    Much as I try to avoid the argument ad hominem, I’m going to have to disagree. My girlfriend went to high school with Ruffini in Greenwich, CT. He was, by all accounts, a sexist right-wing nut in one of America’s richest towns.

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  12. You make a good point about Americans generally liking federal programs despite the rhetoric. That’s why Obama’s proposal to make improvements to health care – lowering the cost for businesses and individuals – while making it universal is a big worry for the GOP. Once Americans get a successful program it’s nearly impossible to get rid of it.

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  13. ‘They are not dedicated to the idea to the degree that they are actually willing to sacrifice to make it a reality.’

    You summed up why I don’t believe in the Republican party platform. It’s the hypocrisy (also exemplified when asking for small government but restricting a woman’s right to control her health) and insult to my intelligence that amazes me.

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