Down, Not Out: The GOP on a Campaign of Reinvention
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The Fiscal Times
February 1, 2013

It’s worth repeating that all political parties are coalitions of people with diverse interests and priorities. What holds them together is one thing and one thing only – a desire to achieve political power so as to implement their agenda.

Among the problems with coalition politics is a continual tension between ideologues for whom all compromise is heresy and pragmatists who simply want to win.
Occasionally, a party may win with a no-compromise position – the Republican Party came into existence and gained victory precisely because it took a no-compromise position on slavery.

On issues of less weight than slavery, however, a no-compromise position is neither desirable nor tenable. Even when ideologues are successful and get all they want, the victory is never permanent. In the case of slavery, racial segregation continued for a century after the war and at its worst was little different for African Americans than slavery had been.

One problem that parties must continually wrestle with is that even when members of its coalition may agree on a particular goal they may differ sharply on their rationale and their intensity of support. This is important when and if a policy becomes an item on the legislative agenda.

Certain options that may seem very similar superficially may have radically different impacts depending on the region, industry or population characteristic. It is the job of lobbyists to exploit these disparate impacts for the benefit of their clients, who may include state and local governments or interest groups such as the AARP as well as corporations.

In recent years, Republicans have had particular difficulty managing their coalition. Since the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 and the election of Barack Obama, our first black president, purists and ideologues have held more than the usual sway.

Through the 2010 elections, Republicans benefitted because ideologues are more likely to turn out in congressional and elections for state legislatures. This allowed the GOP to retake the House of Representatives and, perhaps more importantly, gain control of many legislatures that redrew congressional district lines following the 2010 census. They gerrymandered the process to the enormous benefit of Republicans, virtually assuring them of holding the House through 2020.

The problem is that these same ideologues dominated the primaries for the Republican presidential nomination. They imposed severe litmus tests on all the candidates and repeatedly switched their allegiance depending on which candidate appeared purer, more principled, more conservative.

The ultimate winner, Mitt Romney, was so saddled with extreme positions that he had been forced to adopt to gain the nomination that he couldn’t win the general election despite having considerably more money on his side. Of particular difficulty for him were comments he made at a private fund raiser, secretly recorded, in which he appeared to disparage 47 percent of the population for being dependent on government handouts.

There’s not a single Republican I know of who doesn’t believe in the substantive truth of what Romney said. But at the same time, it is obvious that it was something that never should have been made public. Some ideas critical to political coalitions must stay below the radar, be implied rather exposed to outsiders, alluded to with seemingly innocuous code words that only resonate with members of the coalition or perhaps only to certain ideologues.

Presently, the GOP is debating how to reshape itself in order to win. A number of high-profile Republicans have complained that too many of its candidates in 2012 made stupid comments in public about rape and other issues that hurt the party up and down the ticket. The problem, as with Romney’s 47 percent comment, is that there is little disagreement among Republicans substantively – the vast bulk opposes abortion even in cases of rape – but they know that a majority of Americans disagree with their position.

Some within the party want it to change its policy positions on certain issues such as abortion, the environment, taxes and others, but most simply want Republicans to be smarter about picking candidates who can finesse the issues, keep the coalition together and not scare off winnable moderates and independents. The problem is that many ideologues interpret this as a rebuke to their position, which threatens party unity.

Legislatively, Republicans have an immediate problem in dealing with immigration reform, a top priority for Obama and the Democratic Party. Republicans know that the large and fast-growing Latino population decisively rejected them in the last election in large part because of its opposition to any measure that would allow illegal aliens to gain either permanent resident status or citizenship. Many members of the Republican base will accept nothing less than deportation of all illegal aliens, the bulk of which are Latino.

Corporate interests and the GOP’s libertarian wing, however, favor more immigration. Pragmatists simply want to get this divisive issue behind them so that Republicans can reach out to Latinos or at least stop alienating them. But some pragmatists also believe that any law that increases the pool of Latino voters represents political suicide for the GOP.

At the same time, there is already debate among Republicans about who can represent them in 2016 and have a realistic chance of winning. Some think neither party can hold the White House for more than 8 years at a time, making 2016 a Republican year regardless of who the nominee is. Others think 2016 may be a year like 1988 when that general rule didn’t hold.

The emerging favorite of pragmatists is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has earned the ire of right wing Republicans on several issues, such as federal aid to repair damage from hurricane Sandy. Assuming that the ideologues divide their votes among multiple candidates, as they did in 2012, it may be possible for him to capture the nomination with a plurality of the primary vote without digging himself into a hole as Romney did.

The model, again, is 1988, when George H.W. Bush, who had long been associated with the moderate wing of the GOP, was able to capture the nomination because conservatives divided their support among Jack Kemp, Pete Dupont, Pat Robertson and others.

The Republican party is down but certainly not out. But the GOP must prove that it is more than a coalition of anti-abortion absolutists, anti-tax fanatics, libertarians who want to decimate government, gun nuts and other extremists. Either that or it must find a leader with more political skill than any Republican presently on the national stage.

Bruce Bartlett’s columns focus on the intersection of politics and economics. The author of seven books, he worked in government for many years and was senior policy analyst in the Reagan White House.