Kyle’s post yesterday the other day about the need for the GOP to stop focusing on “how” it was going to come back from the wilderness if it ever wants to get back to relevance made a lot of sense to me. The political reality is that the GOP, despite its recent defeats, continues to consist of tens of millions of faithful voters, including moderates, party fundamentalists, social conservatives, libertarians, etc. And exactly none of those voters are going to change their worldview overnight just because some pundit says that it would be more electorally sound if they did so. So whatever direction one thinks the GOP should go as a matter of policy, the political reality is that it is incapable of consciously choosing any new direction.
Does this mean that the party is permanently doomed? No – we live in a two-party federalist system, and that’s not about to change soon.
Today, I think I finally have a picture of exactly how that road back to relevance is going to look (which is different from the normative picture of how I think it should look), thanks in part to this Politico interview with Gov. Huntsman of Utah. In the interview, Huntsman spells out a worldview that some would call “moderate,” but is instead quite along the lines of the various reformist conservatives – it’s a distincly different type of worldview from that of Arlen Specter & Co.
Matt Yglesias thinks the growth of reformism amongst elected officials like Huntsman and Gov. Crist of Florida means a coming civil war for the GOP. But he argues that these voices seem confined to the state level, and that the GOP won’t actually start to reform on a national level until similar voices start getting elected to Congress.
I disagree. The reality is that change in political party policy doesn’t happen overnight; instead, it happens subtly and gradually over the course of years. What we see in the reformist governors is the beginning of that change – it’s just not a change that is being consciously directed.
Patrick Ruffini’s much-ballyhooed and criticized post on de-Plumberizing the Right gives a pretty good idea of where the Right is likely to go over the next few years on the federal level. Specifically, Ruffini argues that what is need is not a change in policy, but a change in focus onto issues where 80% of Americans agree with Republicans, per Newt Gingrich’s strategy. This actually makes quite a bit of sense as political strategy because it doesn’t involve alienating any of the base, which a political party cannot do without putting itself in an even worse position in the short-run. Meanwhile, Robert Stacy McCain is probably right that it is politically more sound for Republicans to simply oppose anything the Dems try to do, and make them own it if (and some would say when) the Dem policies fail. Besides, there’s rarely an electoral penalty for opposing something that succeeds; there’s frequently an electoral reward for opposing something that fails. And this, of course, is precisely what Congressional Republicans seem to be doing.
The trouble with this approach, while it probably will work in the short-term, is that it is superficial, and only gets part of the GOP’s problems right, as Ross Douthat and Daniel Larison argue. It allows Republicans to stop the bleeding, but those 80% issues aren’t going to be big picture enough to make the GOP relevant again in the minds of a lot of those who have abandoned it (“Drill, Baby, Drill” may be popular with a lot of people, but it’s not something that’s going to suddenly make many people Republicans).
But GOP governors have the burden of actually governing rather than just criticizing, which is part of why several of them are solidly in the reformist camp. They have no choice but to depart from dogma on core issues, which is precisely what Huntsman and Crist are doing. Eventually, though, the national GOP’s change in focus will loosen the dogma on issues where the national GOP is no longer proposing serious policy alternatives. At that point, you will see reformist thought actually start to infect Republicans in Congress and maybe even Presidential primary candidates because it will no longer require annoying part of the base.
To sum up: continued populism on the national level, but with a focus on pushing different issues while reflexively opposing Obama on just about everything; renewed reformism on the state level that ultimately winds up providing an example for a new affirmative agenda on the national level. And no one will have planned it this way, since really it’s not what anyone wants right now – the change is too slow from the perspective of the reformists, and too much from the perspective of the base. But happen, I think it will. I just don’t know what reforms will wind up carrying the day, nor whether I personally will find those reforms palatable in a way that brings me back to the GOP fold (no matter what happens, I’m pretty happy staying an independent).