How to Save the GOP

01.30.13

GOP Needs More Northeast Republicans to Save the Party

Split over immigration, the GOP’s own stalwarts are attacking it as lost, dying, even ‘stupid.’ John Avlon argues that the party can solve its existential crisis by nurturing more politicians like Chris Christie, who have moderate records and wide appeal—including among Democrats.

Bobby Jindal’s calling it “the Stupid Party.” Glenn Beck is showing images of elephants dying while cutting up cake. And David Brooks is calling for a second Republican Party.

There’s grumbling agreement even among the party faithful that the GOP is facing an existential crisis. The belated embrace of comprehensive immigration reform with nary a scream about “amnesty” by anyone except Rush Limbaugh and the House radicals is just the latest indication that the default formula of anger and obstruction isn’t working anymore.

The 2012 ass-kicking is forcing Republicans to confront their deepest demons—namely, that they cannot simply write off whole regions of the country and remain a viable national party. They cannot afford to alienate the fastest-growing communities of color in the USA. They cannot win a war against modernity.

The big tent has been burnt down but it can still be rebuilt—if the Republican Party is willing to embrace reformers who don’t fit in an ideological straitjacket. 

This ain’t no naïve pipe dream. What if I told you that there was a Northeast Republican who currently enjoys 62 percent support from Democrats, 69 percent support from non-whites, 70 percent support from women, and 72 percent support among independent voters? But wait, there’s more—the Republican is pulling those numbers in a state President Obama won by 17 points, where registered Republicans make up only 20 percent of the electorate.

You might have guessed that’s the political profile of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—and while a post-Sandy bump can explain some of the sky-high numbers, any rational Republican consultant should want to run down to the Jersey Shore and figure out what Christie is doing right so the national party can do it, too. 

In large part, his success is the result of refusing to color by numbers in the conservative playbook. He’s not shy about criticizing conservatives when their ideology conflicts with reality—see his devastating and effective slam of the House GOP when they held up Sandy funding. He’s fought hard for fiscal responsibility, closing multibillion-dollar budget gaps while refusing to raise taxes, taking on the unions despite dire threats that doing so would spell his political demise. Instead, the opposite has happened. He’s gained the moral high ground fighting for education reform and happily works across the aisle when there’s common ground to be found. And when he appointed Muslim or openly gay judges to the bench, some conservatives howled, but nothing terrible happened. 

The big tent has been burnt down but it can still be rebuilt—if the Republican Party is willing to embrace reformers who don’t fit in an ideological straitjacket.

It’s a secret hiding in plain sight—most Americans are non-ideological problem-solvers, and they like examples of principled independence from their political leaders. The obsessive play to the base approach of Republican politics in recent years ended up leading to fear-fueled, defensive politics that leads to division instead of addition, when it comes to coalitions.

Chris Christie isn’t the political equivalent of a unicorn—something strange and never seen before.nIn fact, he comes out of a formerly strong tradition—the endangered species known as the Northeast Republican.

Rudy Giuliani had a similar swagger—fearless and unapologetically driven to put policy reforms in place that actually improved the quality of life. As a result, he won reelection with nearly 60 percent of the vote in a city where Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 5 to 1—and he was succeeded by another Republican-turned independent mayor, Mike Bloomberg. Not coincidentally, the supposedly knee-jerk liberal city of New York has enjoyed almost 20 straight years of civic improvement under Republican and independent mayors.

Let’s extend the reality check: Fifteen years ago, popular Republican leaders dominated the northeast—from Gov. Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey to New York’s George Pataki and Massachusetts’s William Weld.

They all shared a similar centrist political profile that can be fairly described as fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Most were pro-choice and pro-immigrant, but they were seen as bulwarks against free-spending Democratic state legislatures. They did not pander to social-conservative populists, and no one would accuse them of representing the Party of Stupid. Most important, they won elections in what might have otherwise been inhospitable territory. In the same era, a third-way generation of urban Republican mayors was proliferating across the country as well, including L.A.’s Richard Riordan, and Indianapolis’s Stephen Goldsmith.

What changed? The play-to-the-base, red state-versus-blue state strategy of Karl Rove alienated Northeast Republicans, along with the elevation of evangelicals like John Ashcroft to positions like attorney general. Northeast Republicans—who represented a distinct tradition of political reform and fiscal responsibility going back to Teddy Roosevelt—left the GOP in droves; to such an extent in fact, that registered independents (or non-affiliated) voters outnumber registered Republicans or Democrats in most seaboard states north of New Jersey.

The cause and effect is clear. The RINO-hunting in the national Republican Party has been especially disastrous in the northeast. When a caricature like Carl Paladino beats an uninspiring but essentially responsible statewide Republican candidate like Rick Lazio in a closed partisan primary, the rot has set in—and Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Kirsten Gillibrand skate into office functionally uncontested. Barely a decade after Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki led the Empire State through the attacks of 9/11, there is no New York Republican Party to speak of. This is an historic embarrassment that deprives most New Yorkers of competitive general elections.

The solution follows what David Brooks sketched out in his most recent column and what David Frum has long argued—against angry winds. The theory of a 50-state GOP needs to follow in the form of real freedom for state parties to brand themselves according to local traditions tailored to the local electorate.

In New York, a party of strident social conservatives is doomed to failure. But if the New York Republican Party were to reclaim its roots as the party of reform and Teddy Roosevelt, embracing an urban Republicanism that is pro-gay rights and pro-immigrant, it can be successful again. This has the added advantage of being true to conservatives’ oft-stated belief in expanding individual freedom. And there will still be plenty of room for clear and constructive contrasts with Democrats, especially in a time of deep budget deficits.

Admitting that you have a problem is the first step toward solving it. The near total absence of elected Republican federal representatives in New England, or Republican governors in the northeast save Chris Christie, is a pretty unmistakable sign of a problem. The solution will require rejecting the politics—and more important, the policies—that have led the Party of Lincoln to be called the Party of Stupid.