Politics

02.07.13

A New GOP? Not Yet

Why it’s going to take four more years before Republicans truly hit rock bottom—and begin moving back to the center. By Michael Tomasky.

You remember the famous Bertolt Brecht line about how the government should just “dissolve the people and elect another”? I keep thinking about it as I read more and more about the Republican attempts at redefinition—Eric Cantor’s speech, Karl Rove’s new group, Fox’s quasi makeover, Marco Rubio’s beer with Ben Smith, and so on. They have all these fancy ideas about how to rebrand. But they can have all the fancy ideas they want. They still have an electoral base that sees politics basically as an arena to exact revenge for a series of resentments and grudges. Until they change that, they are stuck—and it isn’t happening anytime soon.

Cantor’s “Make Life Work” speech Tuesday was more about repackaging than rethinking. He put forward one actually excellent idea, for which I give him credit. He proposed that colleges be required to make public data revealing employment and earning patterns among their graduates. Universities fear this to death, for reasons that education expert Kevin Carey explained in an article in the journal I edit, Democracy, as it could ultimately lead to a reduction in tuition costs.

So I applaud that one. Otherwise, the ideas ranged from OK to largely irrelevant to done before to actively bad. You’ve got to hold on to your wallet any time a Republican talks about “modernizing” Medicare. Endorsing a path to citizenship for DREAM Act recipients is fine, but small potatoes. It is interesting, though, as E.J. Dionne observed, that Cantor was mostly playing on the Democrats’ side of the field, talking about using government to improve people’s lives. Noted.

The Rove–Tea Party feud is a joyous thing to watch. Rove, after an utterly disastrous run around the track in 2012, is now suckering people into writing him checks for a new outfit that will allegedly hold the zanies at bay, filter out the Sharron Angles and Richard Mourdocks of the world, and promote electable conservatives.

First of all, I hardly have the words to describe how happy this makes me, after decades of watching conservatives chortle about unelectable Democrats. And second and more to the point, rather than freezing out challengers from the far, far right as intended, this seems almost certain to invite them. There’s nothing those people love more than the idea that everyone, even their own party’s establishment, is against them. And conservative voters will vote for that.

This is the Republican problem. The basic organizing principle of Republican campaigns for 40 years now has been: they are coming. They’ve mixed in a little positive stuff. Ronald Reagan did that well, Bush Sr. had his thousand points of light, Bush Jr. his ownership society. But fundamentally Republicans have won elections by telling the white majority that “they” are coming after your money and status and privilege. I was surprised to read in Tom Edsall’s latest column, although I should not have been, that the GOP has won the white vote in every election except one going back not to 1980 or 1968, but 1952 (the exception was LBJ’s ’64 landslide).

The Republican Party right now is like an alcoholic who hasn’t yet hit rock bottom.

Now, Cantor, Rove, and Rubio—sweet reason itself on immigration, or so he tries to be—are signaling in their different ways that it’s time to stop playing resentment politics. But they have a base that’s seething with resentments, resentments they themselves, Rove in particular, built and nursed going back to Goldwater’s time. You can’t just undo something like that in one election cycle.

What’s coming, therefore, seems pretty obvious. A grand civil war between the rebranders and the dead-enders. The latter will run candidates against the former for Senate and House races in 2014. Those outcomes will be pivotal in setting a tone for 2016. If the rebranders win a majority of races, including the two or three the media eventually identify as somehow symbolic, then maybe they will have the momentum heading into the presidential election and will be able to get the party to coalesce around an electable candidate. (By the way: If this is supposed to be Rubio, let us pause briefly and note that Rubio is on most issues a far-right-wing politician and is almost surely unelectable, provided the Democratic campaign isn’t completely idiotic. If it’s supposed to be Chris Christie, that’s perhaps—perhaps—another matter.)

But if the dead-enders prevail, or pull a draw?

I think the Republican Party right now is like an alcoholic who hasn’t yet hit rock bottom. He’s not fooling anyone anymore. Everyone’s on to him. But he’s still holding on to his job by a thread, his wife hasn’t yet taken the kids and walked out on him, the cops don’t happen yet to have been there as he swerved his way home from his usual bar. He can still, in other words, kid himself. Disaster hasn’t struck yet.

In this case, disaster would be losing to Hillary Clinton three years from now. I believe that’s what it will probably take to sober the Republicans up; most especially to sober up the base—to make rank-and-file conservatives realize that the age of victory via resentment is gone. That middle Americans who once identified with their grudges are now over them and sick to death of hearing about them. Cosmetic rebranding can’t fix this.