(This is the fourth post in a row about the state of the Republican party. It sums up my points from the last three posts, and puts forth a vision of how the GOP could recover. I’m a former Republican who sees the state of a party that used to be far more moderate and pragmatic as sad and dangerous. Even if they make the changes I suggest I wouldn’t come back – I’ve moved too far to the so-called left. But I think we need a strong, reasonable conservative voice in the political arena).
I like President Obama and intend on voting for his re-election. I don’t like him so much that I revel in the apparent implosion of the Republican party. The country needs two strong parties offering different perspectives and ideas. As Walter Lippmann noted in The Essential Opposition, democracy is a process designed to produce better results. To do so requires that both sides listen and engage each other. If the two parties end up being like parallel universes, not only will it be hard to get anything done, but the crucible of debate and discussion will not help the two sides critically assess the arguments and see ideas and possibilities they overlooked. Learning stops if people think they have an ideology that gives them all the answers. Ideologies are always vast over-simplifications of reality.
So to that end, I’ll proscribe what I think the Republicans need to become viable either for 2012, or at least 2016:
1. An optimistic future oriented message. As I noted awhile back, the tone of the campaign from the GOP has been intently negative. America’s collapsing, our freedoms are in jeopardy, Obama’s going to take away your guns, etc. For the true believing conservatives this is their reality — the Democrats are threatening the American dream enabled by a media that cheerleads and schools that indoctrinate. It’s a kind of fairy tale where liberals are evildoers wanting to destroy the good, while conservatives are fighting against all odds to preserve the American dream.
That kind of story line will keep the true believers motivated but doesn’t appeal to independents who look at Obama and say, “he doesn’t seem that bad, but I’m not sure he’s handling the job well.” They aren’t looking for someone to save us from doom and gloom, but someone who might offer a better vision of what should be done. (Note: one can find a mirror image fairy tale on the far left too — both sides have their true believers).
Here’s my suggestion: Start with the slogan: Building a Sustainable America. This slogan may sound awkward at first, but bear with me. Sustainability has been a key word for progressives concerned about climate change, the environment and the future. The GOP can claim it as their own and sound forward looking and progressive. This would appeal to independents and even moderate Democrats.
Second, it can fit GOP policies. They could talk about economic sustainability (cut spending, focus on debt, defend entitlement reform), social sustainability (the need to protect American values – vague enough to appeal to social conservatives without turning off independents), and political sustainability (foreign affairs, the US role in the world, etc.) This is a positive forward looking message that would still speak to the main themes of the GOP. Instead of being negative and petty, it could be lofty and persuasive. It has the advantage of suggesting that there is a danger inherent continuing the policies in place, meaning that the Republicans don’t have to ditch their critique completely.
2. Ditch the current crop of candidates: Mitt Romney probably would be a decent Republican President. At this time, however he’s damaged goods both amongst independents and within the Republican base. What they need to do is go into their convention in Tampa without a clear candidate, and then find someone who can unite the party behind a positive message. Americans don’t really focus until Labor Day anyway, a breath of fresh air could gain quick support.
They also need a fresh face. Not Daniels of Indiana or Christie of New Jersey. Daniels is too bland, and Christie too fat. Presidential elections are very much marketing campaigns, you need a candidate who looks the part. I think they should instead choose a woman from Alaska. No, not THAT woman! I’m talking Lisa Murkowski.
Murkowski won her Senate campaign in 2010 as a write in candidate, defeating Joe Miller, who narrowly beat her in the GOP primary. Many tea party types hated her after that, but Miller was a very weak candidate and now her appeal to independents and ability to inspire a rare write in Senate victory play in her favor. Coming from Alaska her professionalism contrasts to the flakiness that Sarah Palin represents. In that sense it would put a new, more serious face on the Republican party.
I doubt they’d choose her though, she’s too moderate (and anyway, I’d prefer Olympia Snowe if they went that route). They need someone not tainted by this year’s mudfest. Only Jon Huntsman qualifies, he was too weak to be scathed by the infighting; the others are have all been blemished by the sheer negativity of the campaign. Jeb Bush may be the best personal choice, but the country probably doesn’t want another President Bush, at least not at this point.
3. Demographics and Infromation reform: There is nothing about conservative thinking that makes immigration reform something to be avoided. In fact, Ronald Reagan promoted and championed the most comprehensive reform in history back in the 80s. Now the GOP has to embrace the kind of reform President Bush and Senator McCain tried to push in 2007, only to be stymied by the right wing of their party. This is essential if they are going to adjust to demographic change in the country. They have to mount a credible challenge for Hispanic voters, and their current anti-immigration stance hurts them. Saying “we’re only opposed to illegal immigration” doesn’t work — they have to embrace reform and then court hispanic voters who tend already to be socially conservative.
Polls show Obama leading in the Latino vote 6 to 1, with no Republican above 14%. That’s because of the immigration issue and the harsh stance taken by the GOP. It is the most severe self-inflicted wound the party has given itself.
4. It’ll never be 1980 again. All this will go for naught if the GOP doesn’t take seriously the fact that the country is profoundly different than it was 30 years ago. Gay marriage is here and will continue to expand. Contraception? Sorry Rick. I think the tea party/nostalgia/’end of liberty’ bit in the GOP is a short term reaction to the shock of 1) a black President named Barack Hussein Obama who grew up outside the continental US and seems strange compared to past Presidents; 2) the apparent decline of US power and prestige in the world, creating a fear of a ‘post-American world'; and 3) demographic and cultural change as whites are soon to be less than 50% of the population and society becomes more secular and diverse. Many can’t comprehend how quickly after 9-11 what they thought was a conservative shift to a more forceful America went south so quickly.
Republicans don’t have to accept the direction the country is going, but nostalgia and a desire to “take back” America in the sense of going back to what used to be isn’t going to work. They have to futurize their message and their ideology. That requires rejection of the tea party and a shift towards a less shrill and ideological conservatism. That’s not going to be easy, but ultimately that’s necessary for the GOP to succeed.