Monday, November 10, 2008

The Grand Old Party

In case you can't read the original handwriting, the figures (Left to Right) are saying the following to John C. Fremont:

Skinny Guy: "The thing we want is a law making the use of Tobacco, Animal food, and Lager-bier a capital crime."

Butch-Femme: "We demand, first of all the recognition of woman as the equal of man, with a right to vote and hold office."

Bum: "An equal distribution of property is what I go for."

19th Century MILF: "Col. I wish to invite you to the next meeting of our Free Love association, where the shackles or marriage are not tolerated and perfect freedom exist in love matters and you will be sure to enjoy yourself, for we are all freemounters."

Papist: "We look to you Sir to place the power of the pope on a firm footing in this Country"

Free Black: "De Poppylation of color comes first arter dat you may do wat you pleases."

John C. Fremont: "You shall all have what you desire and be sure that the glorious principles of Popery, Fourierism (i.e. Socialism), Free Love, Woman's rights, the Maine Law (i.e. prohibition), and above all the equality of our colored brethren shall be maintained; If I get into the Presidential Chair.

Funny how perceptions change. In 1856, this was how the rest of the country saw the Republican Party. It was the party of sexual and racial equality, the party of socialism, the party of strange ideas and utopianism, and sexual experimentation.

Fast forward to 2008 and the party has completely changed, and it looks like it will have to again. The defeats in the recent election point to the party losing ground in the once Solid South, being almost completely washed out of New England, and failure to gain in any key areas or demographics. The Bush administration's treasonous and criminal ineptitude is partly to blame, but the problem lies within the party that Reagan built, its foundations were simply too shaky to last much longer.

The main problem was trying to keep too many groups together that opposed one another on principle, namely the social conservatives, the neo-cons, business people, and libertarians (who should have left in droves a few elections ago). The primary campaign showed these divisions coming to light, as did Palin's nomination. The GOP simply has to reorient itself, purge a wing or two of its party, and then rebuild a grassroots campaign with a new base and new message.

But here is the question, which wing? The easiest answer is to remove the evangelical voters. they other factions can get along much better, and in the past, they traditionally have. It was not until the 1980s that they became solidly Republican. However if they are booted out of the party either outright in deed or through a change of the platform, they will rob the GOP of its grassroots support and in all likelihood they could join the Constitution Party and give the Democrats a few more decades in power.

Undoubtedly many in the party are calling for a return to core values, but the problem is 1) what are these values? 2) Which ones to we embrace when they contradict? and 3) Can we actually win on them? The last question has gotten the least amount of attention. Yes, Bush has betrayed many of the core principals of conservatism, at least defined in the last quarter of a century by Reagan. But so did Reagan. What is often not asked, is why such a betrayal? Were these compromises of principle made out of spite? Were leaders simply not thinking?

I think the answer is simple, whether or not conservatism works, it is hard to run on a platform of small and limited government except in certain areas. In cities and suburbs it is not that appealing. People will hate to admit it, but on the whole, they like their programs. People generally are not sympathetic to conservatism in practice, even when they may self-identify as conservatives. This is no critique of the philosophy itself, just a belief that it is hard to campaign on it. That is why Republicans have run their campaigns focused heavily on social issues and foreign policy (and playing to the fears of white people). Discussion about cutting programs and deregulation almost never gets that much attention. Taxes, yes, but taxes are it, and they are dragged out and talked about and then put back away when talk of cutting the actual budget comes up.

Reagan and Bush made compromises and eventually sold out conservatism because they saw that adhering to the ideology could not get them votes. The demographics were working against them. Goldwater tried to run an honest conservative campaign in 1964, and he was trounced (the same could be said with McGovern running from the other side - but part of it was his own ineptitude).

Where does this leave the Republican Party? I think they should reposition themselves as the party of good government, not simply a limited one. I think they should work to maintain their credentials on law and order, and take up a humane, but rational stance on immigration. They should adopt more of a conservative approach to the budget, and less on taxes. They should embrace libertarianism on social policy, the future favors them on that. And they should become heavily invested within environmentalism and create a consensus on the greening of America, to deprive the Democrats of one issue where they continually trounce them.

This means the GOP will, however, become a smaller party. The social conservatives will leave, and perhaps either stay at home, form a new party, or join the Constitution Party. The GOP will have a chance at retaking the presidency, but will be weaker in congress, much like it was before Reagan. The party might give up everything right, and find itself in the center, the balance, and the heart of the country. The cartoon above should show that such transformations are possible.