Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Political Parties
When it comes to major policy battles, since 2009 the GOP is 0-3. David Frum on what it’s doing wrong.
Republicans have lost three major fights since 2009. They seem likely soon to lose a fourth—and all in the same way.
The three previous losses (in case you’re feeling forgetful) were, in order:
(1) The fight over Obamacare. Result: the most ambitious new social insurance program since Medicare, financed—unlike Medicare—by redistributive new taxes on investment and high incomes.
(2) The 2012 election. Result: Despite the worst economy since the Great Depression, the reelection of President Obama, Democratic retention of the Senate, and 1.4 million more votes cast for House Democrats than for House Republicans.
(3) The fight over the “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012. Result: In order to preserve some of the Bush tax cuts, Republicans for the first time since 1991 left their finger prints on a tax increase for upper income groups.
Now comes fight (4), the fight over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling. This one isn’t lost yet. But unless Republicans are prepared to push the country into the catastrophe of national bankruptcy sometime around October 17, it’s hard to see how this one does not end in a Republican retreat, clutching whatever forlorn fig leaf they can negotiate from President Obama.
Behind all four defeats can be seen the same seven mistakes: what you might call the seven habits of highly ineffective political parties. Let’s call the roll:
Habit 1: Maximalist goals.
There’s a lot about Obamacare for a Republican not to like. But to demand Obamacare’s outright repeal (which is what “defunding” amounts to) barely 10 months after decisively losing an election in which Obamacare occupied a central place—well, that’s shooting for the moon. we’ve seen equivalent moon shots again and again since 2009. During the original Obamacare legislation, Republicans took the position: no, no, not one inch. During the election of 2012, Republicans were not content merely to replace one president with another. They also campaigned on the most radical platform the party since 1964. They wanted the biggest possible mandate. Instead they got whomped.
Habit 2: Apocalyptic visions.
Republicans have insisted on maximal goals because they fear they face a truly apocalyptic moment: an irrevocable fork in the road, with one path leading to socialist tyranny, the other to the restoration of the constitutional republic. There sometimes are such moments in history of nations. This is not one. If the United States has remained a constitutional republic despite a government guarantee of health care for people over 65, it will remain a constitutional republic with a government guarantee of health care for people under 65. Obamacare will cost money the country doesn’t have, and that poses a serious fiscal problem. But it’s not as serious a fiscal problem as is posed by the existing programs, Medicare and Medicaid, which cover the people it costs most to cover. It’s not a problem so serious as to justify panic.
Yet panic has gripped the Republican rank-and-file since 2009—and instead of allaying panic, Republican leaders have aggravated and exploited it, to the point where the leaders are compelled to behave in ways they know to be irrational. In his speech to the “Bull Moose” convention of 1912, Teddy Roosevelt declared, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord!” It’s a great line, but it’s not a mindset that leads to successful legislative outcomes.
Habit 3: Irrational animus.
Barack Obama was never likely to be popular with the Republican base. It's not just that he's black. He’s the first president in 76 years with a foreign parent—and unlike Hulda Hoover, Barack Obama Sr. never even naturalized. While Obama is not the first president to hold two degrees from elite universities—Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did as well—his Ivy predecessors at least disguised their education with a down-home style of speech. Join this cultural inheritance to liberal politics, and of course you have a formula for conflict. But effective parties make conflict work for them. Hate leads to rage, and rage makes you stupid. Republicans have convinced themselves both that President Obama is a revolutionary radical hell-bent upon destroying America as we know it and that he's so feckless and weak-willed that he'll always yield to pressure. It's that contradictory, angry assessment that has brought the GOP to a place where it must either abjectly surrender or force a national default. Calmer analysis would have achieved better results.
Habit 4: Collapse of leadership.
The Republicans have always been the more disciplined of America’s two political parities, and today they still are. But whereas before, discipline used to flow from elected leadership down, today it flows from factional leadership up. An aide to Sen. Mike Lee told the National Review: “The minority of the minority is going to run things until our leadership gets some backbone.” The Lee aide was specifically referring to the Republican minority in the Senate, but the language has broader implication. According to Robert Costa, a well-sourced reporter at NRO: “What we’re seeing is the collapse of institutional Republican power ... The outside groups don’t always move votes directly but they create an atmosphere of fear among the members [of Congress].” Large organizations are inherently vulnerable to capture by tightly organized militant tendencies. This is how a great political party was impelled to base a presidential campaign on the Ryan plan—a plan that has now replaced the 1983 manifesto of the British Labour Party as “the longest suicide note in history.” It’s the job of leadership to remember, in the words of Edmund Burke, “Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.” That job is tragically going undone in today’s GOP.
Habit 5: Self-reinforcing media.
The actor Hugh Grant once bitterly characterized his PR team as “the people I pay to lie to me.” Politicians do not always need to tell the truth, but they always need to hear it. Yet hearing the truth has become harder and harder for Republicans. It takes a very unusual spin artist to remember that what he or she is saying isn’t actually true. Non-politicians say what they believe. Politicians sooner or later arrive at the point where they believe what they say. They have become prisoners of their own artificial reality, with no easy access to the larger truths outside. This entombment in their own artificial reality was revealed to the entire TV-watching world in Karl Rove’s Fox News election night outburst against the Ohio 2012 ballot results. It was the same entombment that blinded Republicans to the most likely outcome of their no-compromise stance on Obamacare—and now again today to the most likely outcome of the government shutdown/debt ceiling fight they started.
Habit 6: Politics as war.
The business of America is business, as Calvin Coolidge said. American politics has been businesslike too. Americans understand that the business of the nation is ultimately settled by a roomful of tired people negotiating their differences in the small hours of the morning: everybody gets something, nobody gets everything. It’s a grubby business, unavoidably, and most of the time, Americans understand that. They build statues to Martin Luther King. They elect Lyndon Johnson.
From time to time in American politics, differences arise that are too wide to negotiate. Slavery versus no slavery. Prohibition versus drink. Pro-life versus pro-choice. Professional politicians usually keep their distance from absolutist movements. As George Washington Plunkitt observed, “The politicians have got to stand together this way or there wouldn’t be any political parties in a short time.” That line was meant as a joke, but it contains truth. Professional politicians are disagreement managers. Since 2009, however, the GOP has given unprecedented scope to those who for their own ideological, financial, or psychological reasons refuse to allow disagreements to be managed—and instead relentlessly push toward the kind of ultimate crises the country so nearly escaped in 2011 and teeters again on the verge of today.
Habit 7: Despair.
The great British conservative historian Hugh Trevor Roper scoffed at the Marxist claim that history runs in one direction only. “When radicals scream that victory is indubitably theirs, sensible conservatives knock them on the nose. It is only very feeble conservatives who take such words as true and run round crying for the last sacraments.” The great conservative poet T.S. Eliot explained that there are no lost causes, because there are no won causes. How many ways can one express that idea? So long as there is life, there is hope; everything old is new again; etc. etc. etc.
The trouble with these assurances, however, is that they contain an implicit moral that politics is very hard work. Free-market economics—so discredited in the 1940s—returned to favor in the 1970s because of tireless research by brilliant economists. The excesses of the 2000s have undone that success, and now it will take serious thinking, and some necessary reforms, to repair the damage. It’s a tempting shortcut to throw up one’s hands and say, “I’ve seen the best of it. The future holds only darkness.” It’s especially tempting for a party that disproportionately draws its support from older voters. The fact is that for those of us over 50, the future offers us as individuals only decline leading to extinction. It’s natural to believe that what happens to us must happen to the world around us. Who wants to hear that things will become much, much better for humanity shortly after we ourselves shuffle off the scene? Yet of all mental errors, despair is the most dangerous to a democracy. The “politics of cultural despair” lead to authoritarianism and worse, as the German historian Fritz Stern warned in his history of that same title.
The man who has no hope will make the most irrevocable errors—and unnecessarily plunging the United States into the first national bankruptcy since the 1780s would be about as irrevocable as an error as history contains.