Conservative Columnists and the New Republican Strategy

The Republican recriminations have begun.  Among those in Republican editorial opinion, the worst conclusions reached from the 2012 Elections were so crude in their analysis as to leave Republicans more resentful and confused about their electoral problems, as when so many FOX News editorialists wrote-off single women as loose and wanting free birth control.  The implication was supposed to be that married women were more-grounded and voted on “real” economic issues–as if most single adult women really had any reason to believe a Mitt Romney Presidency would leave them remotely better-off.  (You’ve got to hand it to FOX: Its leading luminaries may be shameless, but at least they’re visibly lacking in dignity.)

For more-sophisticated fare, there is the Conservative intelligentsia at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and–here I am reaching a bit–the National Review.

In 2008 William F. Buckley Jr. died and all but took the National Review with him.  Even as a Liberal I always found Buckley a pleasure to read, humbling in his knowledge and range of experience and exemplary in his erudition; I knew damn well that he was a Conservative and if anything this made me more eager to know what he thought.  Today the National Review is a depository of many hackish opinions that often appear composed to reassure the right that they should avoid even the physical proximity of Liberals where practical.  The extent of its insulation, its surprising philistinism (considering how Buckley possessed cultural literacy in abundance) and its tendency to treat the validity of reliably-Conservative positions on almost every issue (excluding national drug policy, where Buckley moved his branch of Conservative opinion towards ending the Drug War in the early 1990s) as self-evident gives a Liberal little cause to read the rag now.

Thomas Sowell, who seems to enjoy dabbling in history once a month when he has a few minutes to spare, comes up with a bizarre argument that the Republicans’ problem in 2012 was failure to communicate Conservative ideas.  In what has to be 1 of the most-stock lines of Conservative argument available, he holds every (moderate, it is presumed) failed Republican candidate since the 1980s to the Reagan standard–as if economic change, large demographic shifts and the ensuing cultural changes really have nothing to do with Republicans’ major electoral reversals in 2008 and 2012.  The 2012 Election, in Sowell’s view, was lost on rhetoric.  He takes as a settled fact that President Obama utters “things that will sound both plausible and inspiring to uninformed people, even when they sound ridiculous to people who know the facts. Apparently (President Obama) believes the former outnumber the latter, and the election results suggest that he may be right.”  So: The President and other Democrats are as a rule either intellectual flakes or liars, and yours truly and anyone else persuaded by Obama’s propositions over Governor Romney’s are ignorant.  That’s a counterintuitive thesis, considering the exit polls show President Obama won 55% of college postgraduates.  I am not oversimplifying his argument, something that should routinely be established when paraphrasing Thomas Sowell.  And no, I am not particularly offended by Sowell’s insinuations against my intelligence for being an Obama supporter; I am offended by the poor quality of his thought.  Moving on…

Victor Davis Hanson, a longtime National Review contributor, presents what I see as a conventional argument for the magazine.  Essentially, it comes down to a restatement of Governor Romney’s sad “47%” comments–that is, the Democrats have supposedly got a critical mass of the US population right where they want them, in dependency, and now the “gimme constituencies” will vote themselves benefits on the backs of those who work:

“…We have never quite had the present perfect storm of nearly half not paying federal income taxes, nearly 50 million on food stamps, and almost half the population on some sort of federal largess — and a sophistic elite that promotes it and at the same time finds ways to be exempt from its social and cultural consequences. For an Obama, Biden, Kerry, Pelosi, or Feinstein, the psychological cost for living like 18th-century French royalty is the promotion of the welfare state for millions of others who for now will be kept far away, in places like Bakersfield or Mendota.

“The solution, I fear, may be near-insolvency along the Wisconsin model, and self-correction after some dark Greek-like years, or, in contrast, in extremis blue politicians having to deal with the consequences of their own policies. In the manner that an Obama can vastly expand drones and renditions without a whimper of liberal angst, so too someone like him will have to deal with bounced Medicare reimbursements or free cell phones that can’t be replaced when they break, or long lines in federal health clinics emptied of doctors who have gone elsewhere. The laws of physics ultimately prevail.”

So, Hanson’s analysis of Republicans’ poor overall performance in the 2012 Elections is that people living off of government benefits just voted themselves more government benefits.  Republicans ostensibly cannot do much to stop this, but it is implied they can wait serenely for the country to go bankrupt (as a certain Conservative orthodoxy insists it must) like the free-market eschatology in Atlas Shrugged.  Then, Republicans get to build their electoral majority, apparently having won the argument in the long-term by default.

All I have to offer in response to Victor Davis Hanson (and other Republicans currently telling themselves this comforting narrative) are the words of a paleoconservative who’s out of his league–from Richard Weaver’s introduction to Ideas Have Consequences:

“…It is here the assumption that the world is intelligible and that man is free and that those consequences we are now expiating are the product not of biological or other necessity but of unintelligent choice.  Second, I go so far as to propound, if not a whole solution, at least the beginning of one, in the belief that man should not follow a scientific analysis with a plea of moral impotence.” (emphasis added)

Writing in the New York TimesRoss Douthat (a good column addition on the right, I’ve always thought) warns that the Republican Party will have to take a more-holistic approach to broadening their base than simple appeals to women and minorities:

“…Republicans are also losing because today’s economic landscape is very different than in the days of Ronald Reagan’s landslides.  The problems that middle-class Americans faced in the late 1970s are not the problems of today.  Health care now takes a bigger bite than income taxes out of many paychecks.  Wage stagnation is a bigger threat to blue-collar workers than inflation.  Middle-income parents worry more about the cost of college than the crime rate.  Americans are more likely to fret about Washington’s coziness with big business than about big government alone.”  In Douthat’s view, the Republican Party’s Conservative ideology, as it stands, is simply irrelevant to Americans’ contemporary concerns.  He warns against Republican strategists simply trying to play identity politics, acknowledging there is a real risk of such a superficial effort “because playing identity politics seems far less painful than overhauling the Republican economic message.”

David Brooks, the senior Conservative voice at the New York Timesmade the same argument, but from the demographic angle:

“The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values.  Two findings jump out.  First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work.  By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

“Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government.  In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

“Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government.  It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise.  It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil.  It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable.  It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

“For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant…”

Neoconservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer declined to be so reflective when he penned this strategy for Republicans after Election Day:

“The only part of (the demographics argument) that is even partially true regards Hispanics. They should be a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example).

“The principal reason they go Democratic is the issue of illegal immigrants. In securing the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney made the strategic error of (unnecessarily) going to the right of Rick Perry. Romney could never successfully tack back.

“For the party in general, however, the problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word. Shock and awe — full legal normalization (just short of citizenship) in return for full border enforcement.”

Oh, wow.  I hope Republicans embrace this argument, partly because I want the millions of undocumented immigrants living in America to be able to come out of the shadows, and partly because I’m more-than-fine with the electoral defeat Republicans would likely face in 2016 if they concluded that the only policy change they need to contend with to command a majority is immigration reform!

Krauthammer is right when he says from a strategic standpoint when he says that “The country doesn’t need two liberal parties,” and “Yes, Republicans need to weed out candidates who talk like morons about rape.  But this doesn’t mean the country needs two pro-choice parties either.”  Some exultant Liberals have insisted that the Republican Party will simply have to give up on limited government Conservatism or social Conservatism–whichever one they don’t like–in order to win elections from now on; I tend to think this is wishful thinking on their part rather than a conclusion from a clear assessment of the Republican Party’s structural disadvantage.  But contrary to Krauthammer’s crude prescription, the Republican Party does have a real structural disadvantage now, and single-issue pandering to Hispanics–however far-reaching the issue–won’t leave them bound to vote Republican with so many bread-and-butter issues confronting them.

Actually, it has been the Liberal argument for quite some time–an argument I find quite convincing after the tenor and demographic cast of the 2008, 2010, and 2012 national elections–that were it not for an unexamined belief that government taxed whites at high rates to pay for Federal benefits enjoyed primarily by minorities, far more of the white middle class would vote Democratic.  There is still the risk that Republicans don’t recognize their peril, toying with longtime Federal benefits enjoyed by the white middle and working class, such as Social Security, Medicare, the mortgage interest tax deduction, and Federal highway spending among other things.  Many professed small-government Conservatives simply take these extensive Federal benefits for granted.  Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of The National Review, understands this.  Of all the post-election ruminations I saw in The National Review, his was the most-sober and most comprehensively-countenancing by far.  It also addresses the scope of Republicans’ electoral weakness in a way that underscores the limitations of Krauthammer’s analysis.

“Romney was not a drag on the Republican party.  The Republican party was a drag on him.  Aaron Blake pointed out in the Washington Post that Romney ran ahead of most of the Republican Senate candidates: He did better than Connie Mack in Florida, George Allen in Virginia, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Denny Rehberg in Montana, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Pete Hoekstra in Michigan, Deb Fischer in Nebraska, Rick Berg in North Dakota, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and of course Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.  In some cases Romney did a lot better.  (He also did slightly better than Ted Cruz in Texas, a race Blake for some reason ignored.)

“None of those candidates were as rich as Romney, and almost all of them had more consistently conservative records than he did.  It didn’t help them win more votes.  The only Republican Senate candidates who ran significantly ahead of Romney were people running well to his left in blue states, and they lost too.”

Ponnuru continues with a pretty-unsparing account of the electoral weakness of the Republican Party–which he alleges has never been a national majority party since 1930.  He argues that Republicans have made real inroads against Democrats in national elections since 1968 when they have captured issues of particular concern to the middle class:

“The absence of a middle-class message was the biggest failure of the Romney campaign, and it was not its failure alone. Down-ticket Republican candidates weren’t offering anything more — not the established Republicans, not the tea-partiers, not the social conservatives. Conservative activists weren’t demanding that Romney or any of these other Republicans do anything more. Some of them were complaining that Romney wasn’t ‘taking the fight to Obama’; few of them were urging him to outline a health-care plan that would reassure voters that replacing Obamacare wouldn’t mean taking health insurance away from millions of people.

“Romney’s infamous ’47 percent’ gaffe — by which he characterized voters who do not pay income taxes as freeloaders and sure Democratic voters, which they aren’t — made for a week of bad media coverage and some devastatingly effective Democratic ads. It was not, however, a line of thinking unique to Romney. It was an exaggerated version of a claim that had become party orthodoxy.”

The fact that Republicans are Governors of 30 States, and hold a majority of State Legislatures, he sees as irrelevant: The Republicans tend to hold the Governors’ mansions and State Legislatures in the smaller States, making their accomplishment look more far-reaching than it actually is.  Ponnuru doesn’t offer substantive policy prescriptions (It’s still the month of the Election, after all, and that’s not his job), but he warns Republicans that their policies must focus on the middle class, not the heroic “job creators” most people know very well they aren’t.

To his credit, Fred Bauer wrote a shorter if less-powerful version of this argument.

Now, this is how you respond when you are disappointed by an election: Michael Gerson, another Conservative Washington Post op-ed columnist, reaches completely sober conclusions.  He acknowledges that President Obama’s win is significant because it was achieved with a message of Liberalism in a Presidential Election that was about ideas; the President ran and won on his appeal to Democratic base constituencies.  Governor Romney ran ahead with independents and senior citizens but still polled behind almost constantly–and lost the Election unambiguously.

Gerson proudly and prudently rejects the petty condemnation of the electorate we’ve heard from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, but he doesn’t abandon Conservatism or deny the political importance of the Republican Party’s base constituencies. He acknowledges that his party lost this election in part over its hostility towards illegal immigrants, in part over evidence that Republicans wanted to gut funding for public education and emergency assistance for the poor, in part over its lack of an economic plan for the old industrial core, and in part because of so many candidates’ callousness towards involuntary pregnancies due to rape or incest. While he doesn’t attribute the party’s current electoral troubles to this, he seems to believe Conservatives are now in retreat on their opposition to gay marriage.

Though he is not exactly rooting for them, the Liberal Ironist nonetheless salutes those initial few Republicans who have said “The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves,” and offered serious suggestions for how their party can win elections now that the contemporary Democratic base is larger than their own.  There’s no dearth of elite opinion that wants to help the cause; now we’ll see if the base is eager to grow–or if, again in the words of Richard Weaver, “we are in effect asking for a confession of guilt and an acceptance of sterner obligation; we are making demands in the name of an ideal or the suprapersonal, and…cannot expect a more cordial welcome than disturbers of complacency have in any other age…”

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