The “Growth and Opportunity Project” report released by the RNC yesterday is getting an unenthusiastic reception. Critics both inside and outside the party have pointed out its unrealistically rosy assessment of the party’s health and focuses on marketing over policy.
The report’s discussion of “non-Republican ethnic groups” also borders on the delusional. A party dominated by Southern white evangelicals is never going to do well among Asian-American and black voters. Period. And support for comprehensive immigration may be a necessary condition of improved showing among Hispanics. But it’s by no means a sufficient one.
So is the report a failure? Actually, it’s no worse and perhaps and bit better than could have been expected.
In the first place, some of the critics seem to have forgotten that the RNC is not a thinktank. Rather, it’s the fundraising and organizational arm of Republican party. The RNC can provide advice, tactical support, and funding to candidates. But it can’t tell them what to think or say, even at the level of general principles.
Expecting policy advice from RNC chairman Reince Priebus, in other words, is like asking the office manager to fill in as CEO. It’s just not his job. And it’s no wonder than he seems uncomfortable in the role.
Second, many of the paradoxes in the report reflect tensions within the party. As Matthew Continetti has argued, Republicans are caught in a “double bind“: there’s not much they can do to reach new demographics without alienating influential constituencies within the party. That’s another reason the report emphasizes style at the expense of substance. Having failed, (inevitably) to square the political circle, all the RNC can do is encourage candidates to avoid alienating even more voters with ugly and stupid rhetoric that cost the parts Senate seats in 2012.
Finally, the report does represent a step toward reality on two important issues: immigration and gay marriage. I don’t often agree with Jennifer Rubin. But she’s right to argue that Republicans cannot ignore the facts that 11 million illegal immigrants are here and unlikely to leave, and that public support for gay marriage has become overwhelming. Shifts on these issues are not enough in themselves to restore the party. But they would remove two obstacles to the success of appeals outside the dwindling base.
Representatives of that base, such as the Breitbart operation, object that “there is nothing in the report about strengthening the Republican Party’s commitment to conservative principles–the winning formula in 1980, 1994, and 2010.” A bit of scrutiny reveals how foolish this objection really is. The Republican victories of 2010 and 1994 were in midterm elections. Both followed the election of a Democratic president. They also preceded the reelection of the same president two years later. If that’s the result of commitment to conservative principles, then conservative principles are losers in national elections.
But what about 1980? In fact, Reagan’s success that year does tell us something important about Republicans’ prospects, although not what Gipper fetishists imagine. Reagan didn’t win because of his “commitment to conservative principles”. He won because he was able to convince voters who disagreed with each other on many issues that America would be freer, more prosperous, and more respected under his administration than under his opponent’s. Only a strong candidate can pull off this trick of political alchemy, which Bill Clinton would accomplish for the Democrats twelve years late. And a political talent like Reagan’s or Clinton’s can’t be conjured up by any report.
A tribute to the retiring Mariano Rivera? A wink to the notion that he haunts John McCain’s nightmares? Either way, Rand Paul entered the CPAC stage yesterday to the musical stylings of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” and full-throated roars of approval from the conservative crowd. First elected in 2010, the junior senator from Kentucky has been on something of a political tear of late, and he built off of the momentum from his social media fueled filibuster to offer a textbook demonstration of his skill at covering libertarian ideas in conservative partisan trappings.
Paul began his speech by declaring he had “a message for the President, “a message that is loud and clear, a message that doesn’t mince words.” Listen to three speeches at CPAC, and you’ll hear that four times, followed by a standard GOP platitude. The red-meat crowd sensed their priming and loaded up to applaud an attack on Obamacare, the virtues of America the Beautiful, or some similar staple. Paul gave them: “no one person gets to decide the law, no one person gets to decide your guilt or innocence.” From the first, his speech demonstrated the rhetorical talent Paul the Younger brings to his increasingly large national profile.
In his further attack on President Obama, Paul demanded to know “will you or won’t you defend the Constitution?” The crowd ate it up, so he slipped into Eisenhower, usually more in vogue in the pages of The American Conservative than the ACU, asking “How far can you go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend without?” The Senator followed with Montesquieu and the separation of powers but concluded the point by saying “Our Bill of Rights is what defines us and makes us exceptional.” Feeding off the guaranteed applause for American exceptionalism, Paul defended himself against John McCain and Lindsay Graham by draping himself in the cause of the wounded warriors, “the 6,000 parents whose kids died as American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Paul was defending the Bill of Rights so that the soldiers might not have died in vain, thus co-opting the rhetoric that extended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With a deft step, John McCain was rhetorically wrong-footed.
Writing in the New Republic, in 2005, less than a year after the reelection of George W. Bush had left many liberals feeling that they’d lost the “war of ideas,” Jonathan Chait, as ever contrary, insisted that there was no need for “new” ideas. The old ones, so to speak, were just fine. What the center-left lacked was the power to enact them:
It’s one thing for Democrats to sketch out the sort of alternatives they would prefer if they ran Washington. But, as long as Republicans do run Washington—and certainly as long as Bush sits in the Oval Office—doing nothing is often going to be the best available scenario for liberals. Emphasizing the downside of bad change rather than the upside of positive change reflects political necessity, not intellectual failure.
I thought of Chait’s piece as I read through House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s latest annual budget resolution, otherwise known as “The Path to Prosperity.” If you pulled Ryan aside and threw the Lasso of Truth around him, I imagine he’d say something very like what Chait expressed in 2005: “I like my ideas. I could have done a lot more to realize them if I were vice president. But for now, I have to wait.”
The Ryan budget has two overarching policy objectives: 1) Entitlement reform: specifically, putting a limit on Medicare’s annual budget and giving states a lot more flexibility over their Medicaid rolls; and 2) radically simplifying the tax code.
Ryan is no fool; he knows there is no chance the Obama administration will accept Medicare premium support or Medicaid block-granting. But it’s what he believes should be done, and so he’s proposing it as a matter of course. There is, however, a sliver of hope that Republicans will reach an agreement with Obama on tax reform. As Ezra Klein has noticed, Ryan’s budget is vaguer in this area than it had been. A top tax rate of 25 percent is not a hard plank, but rather a “goal” he’d like Congress to “achieve.”
Add that wiggle room to Ryan’s remark yesterday that he has no desire to relitigate the fiscal cliff battle over revenue, and you have a white smoke signal that says, “On taxes, we might be able to do some business.”
Some of my favorite Ryan-watchers, like Ross Douthat and James Pethokoukis, had clearly been hoping that Ryan would produce something fresher and less straitened than he did. I appreciate where they’re coming from, and yet, perhaps too charitably, I’m reading in the Ryan Budget 3.0 a Chait-like sigh of resignation—of resignation to, as he has put it more than once since losing in November, the “reality of divided government.”
Aside from its base-stroking unrealism about a balanced budget in 10 years, there is a subtle sort of realism about this new Ryan budget. In its very lack of creative “new ideas,” there is an admission that “The Path to Prosperity” no longer has the magic-rabbit power it had after the 2010 midterm election. It’s a budget document scarcely worth more than the PDF pixels in which it’s displayed.
I think Ryan knows this, and expended very little effort to hide the fact.
Conventional wisdom in Washington is a creature of the daily news cycle. It can evaporate overnight. For now, though, the budget cuts known as sequestration are being spun as a victory for House Republicans. Officially, neither the White House nor the House leadership was in favor of the sequester per se. But Republicans staked out a position that, at least temporarily, was a win-win: if the cuts were averted, great; but if no agreement could be reached on how to responsibly replace the cuts, then they should stick.
I’m still doubtful that the sequester will remain fully in place, but, in the meantime, it’s worth registering a couple of arguments that the sequester isn’t just a short-term win for Republicans. From this vantage point, the fiscal cliff deal was a high-water mark for Obama’s second term.
The first is from GOP strategist and former House leadership aide John Feehery. He writes in The Hill:
[T]he White House has gotten nowhere on its two biggest non-fiscal legislative agenda items, immigration and gun control. On the fiscal issues, the Republicans have succeeded in getting 98 percent of the Bush tax cuts made permanent. On spending, they have been successful in rolling back spending to 2009 levels. And what has the president achieved in these first two months of the new year? Outside of putting new Cabinet secretaries in place — and not without some controversy — he hasn’t accomplished much.
It seems to me it’s a little early to break out the champagne, but Feehery has a point: President Obama himself conceded that this year is crucial for his second-term legislative agenda. In that light, two months really is a long time. If his fiscal leverage is gone, and the rest of his agenda a prisoner of Senate otiosity—well, that doesn’t bode well for 2014 and beyond, does it?
Even more intriguing is Matthew Miller’s analysis in the Washington Post, in which Miller sees Obama’s agenda in the jaws of the “meaningless elite consensus” on fiscal responsibility. Since Obama rhetorically shares this consensus, and since voters see debt as a “values issue,” Miller writes, next week’s unveiling of a Republican proposal to balance the budget in 10 years could be a game-changer:
Democrats can’t come close to [Rep. Paul] Ryan’s goal in a responsible way without raising taxes on people who earn less than $250,000 a year. That’s the one thing Obama will never do (sorry, but the president didn’t mean it when he said he’d tell us what we needed to hear, not what we wanted to hear). He, like Republicans, will leave that painful truth to a successor. …
So what will they do? They can say balance isn’t important. They can say it is and fudge the numbers in a Democratic answer to the big Ryan fudge. Either way, these questions will expose rifts in the Democratic caucus that could keep the White House scrambling for months, as progressives rightly say we need to focus on jobs and growth, and centrists rightly say the party can’t be cast as fiscally irresponsible.
I don’t profess to know what will happen six days from now, let alone six months.
But I agree with Feehery and Miller in this sense: Democrats are in for a much tougher battle than most thought two months ago, and liberal skeptics of the fiscal-cliff compromise are starting to look prescient.
The key, as I’ve been arguing all along, will be how wisely Republicans use their leverage: Will they get something in return for it, or will they bludgeon themselves with the lever?
Remember the big fuss about a month ago over the Virginia Senate Republicans’ plot to ram a redistricting bill through a tied chamber while one Democratic senator was at the inauguration?
The New York Times parroted the Democrats’ argument in a headline saying the bill “hurts blacks.” It certainly would have altered most of the Democratic senators’ seats, though none of the five in majority-minority districts. But the plan would have also drawn a new majority-minority district in Southside, correcting the current arrangement that is possibly in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
It’s a situation worth remembering as the Supreme Court takes up a challenge to the Voting Rights Act and Democrats seek to paint it as an indispensable bulwark against Republican electoral tinkering. To Virginia Democrats, at least, the VRA is only a priority when it’s to their political advantage.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has been interpreted to mean that in a given area, if minorities constitute more than half of the voting population, they should be grouped in the same district, according to the 2009 Supreme Court decision Bartlett v. Strickland. The proposed 25th senate district in the Virginia Republicans’ plan would have done just that. Sen. John C. Watkins told the Star-Tribune that the new district would be 56.2 percent African-American. Whether the current coalition districts, with predominantly black areas drawn in to shore up other Democrats, violates the VRA is up to a court to decide under Section 5. A good case could probably be made, though don’t expect Eric Holder’s Justice Department to make it. (See a map and statistics here.)
Most majority-minority districts are in urban areas. What’s interesting about this proposed new 25th is that it would have been the first fully rural majority-minority senate district in the state, owing to the unique demographics of Southside–whites tend to concentrate in towns and blacks in the hinterland.
Virginia’s senate has had five majority-minority districts for 22 years, while the number has increased in the House of Delegates. The Democratic leadership opposed creating a sixth majority-minority district in Southside in the 2011 redistricting process, and has since.
Louise Lucas’s district, which contains about 40 percent of the area of the proposed 25th, is half rural, jutting east into the Tidewater as other black areas in Norfolk and Virginia Beach were cordoned off in 2011 to shore up Eastern Shore Senator Ralph Northam. That’s basically the Democrats’ logic; split up black areas into coalition districts to make them more competitive.
“Plans that dilute minority voting strength by failing to create feasible majority-minority districts may be quickly challenged following adoption,” advises the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, in a section on their website on majority-minority districts. The 1991 redistricting created similar disputes, with the Republican Party and the ACLU both opposing what they saw as minority vote dilution by Democrats.
After the redistricting bill passed in the Senate this January Senator Creigh Deeds, a former gubernatorial candidate whose seat would have been eliminated under the Republican plan, rose to give a bizarre speech in praise of Stonewall Jackson. This is an edited version:
There is a hole in our politics where a center-right politics of limited government solidarity should be. That isn’t because of a lack of policy proposals or the lack of a (latent) public desire for such a center-right politics. This lack in our politics exists because of mistakes by key political elites who keep getting suckered by Obama’s statism into a radical-sounding rhetorical anti-statism that doesn’t even reflect Republican policy. Better options are available. We just need to stop charging furiously every time Obama waves his red flag and build our own positive message. We might find that a prudent and relevant Catholic-influenced Republican politics is more popular than the Republican politics of job creators + tax cuts for high earners + nothing.
I do have to quibble with one point, however. Spiliakos is right that Republicans spout anti-statist rhetoric that’s more extreme than the actual portfolio of policies they’re trying to enact. But it’s not because Obama is “suckering” them. Obama practices a center-left politics that is not substantially different from that of the Clintons. And to the extent that Republicans insist on defining the center-left as “radical,” they must rhetorically push themselves further right in order to offer a truly “conservative” alternative. (As Dan McCarthy observes, this seems to be Sen. Rand Paul’s long-term gameplan. I’m not sure it’s a recipe for success in ’16—and it seems to me that Paul is developing a “populist libertarian” message to soften the hard edges.)
Secondarily, Republicans would, I think, have employed apocalyptic rhetoric about country-destroying socialism and spiteful 47 Percentism even if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2008. The party, and the movement broadly speaking, needed to evade responsibility for the financial crisis and the recession that followed. So it noisily separated itself from the big-spending ways and self-advertised “compassion” of the Bush administration—even as it now grapples with the task of presenting an agenda that affirmatively appeals to middle-class families.
The problem is simple: a pro-family agenda and the apocalyptic anti-statism are divergent paths.
Sooner rather than later, conservatives interested in winning elections again are going to have to choose.
After several months of reflection, I’m becoming convinced that they are. I don’t claim any private information or special insight. Here, for what they’re worth, are my reasons:
Republican voters are almost exclusively white. And whites, although still a considerable majority, are a shrinking portion of the population. What’s more, Republicans do best among older whites. These voters are, almost by definition, closer to dying out. It’s possible that younger whites will become more Republican as they age: although Obama won a majority of whites under 30 in 2008, he lost that group in 2012. But there’s some evidence that young people of all ethnicities are more socially libertarian and open to big government than their parents.
How can Republicans deal with this forbidding situation? One answer, which has the advantage of inertia, is to do nothing. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Rather than nothing, Republicans in the House and Senate propose to do exactly what they’ve done in the past. At the moment, that means reviving the Balanced Budget Amendment. As Scott Galupo observes, this is lousy politics as well as bad policy. About 20 percent of Americans name the budget deficit among their main concerns. For the most part, however, they’re already Republicans.
Another strategy is to combine cosmetic outreach to ethnic minorities with concessions on issues that the party establishment considers unimportant, particularly immigration. Marco Rubio appears to be betting his career on this maneuver. That may be wishful thinking. It will take a lot more than quasi-amnesty to win Hispanic votes after years of frankly nasty anti-immigrant rhetoric. And the establishment of a path to citizenship for illegal aliens would both infuriate the base and, over time, dilute its power.
Moreover, Asian Americans, who seem like promising targets for the Republican message, are turned off by Republicans’ assertive Christianity. Parading around converts like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley will not be helpful. On the other hand, endorsing gay marriage, say, will drive social conservatives out of the party.
That leaves what might be called the Calhoun option. More popular at the local level than with the national party, at least publicly, this strategy involves legal changes that would limit the influence of the coming majority, which is younger and less white. Some of these measures have been justified by concerns about widespread electoral fraud that are mostly sincere but have no empirical basis. Others are explicitly political. For example, it’s a feature, not a bug, that plans to split states’ electoral votes by congressional district give rural votes greater weight than urban ones (and we know who lives in cities).
As critics of these plans have admitted, there’s nothing new about such efforts: counter-majoritarianism has been a fixture of American politics since the constitutional convention. Even so, they’re unlikely to succeed in the long run. As Tocqueville observed, it’s almost impossible for American institutions to stand against the principle of majority rule.
Contra Karl Rove, however, there are no permanent majorities. The appearance of an unusually talented politician, persistently sluggish economic growth, or an unexpected event such as a major terrorist attack, could lead even more whites to vote Republican in the future. That might be enough to win presidential elections within the next decade or two. And the party will continue to thrive in many states, where residential polarization and gerrymandering give it a built-in advantage.
But it’s tough to see how Republicans can remain a national force so long as their their support is limited to a shrinking cohort. On this point, centrist historians and Pat Buchanan agree. David Brooks, ever the optimist, recently suggested the foundation of a “second G.O.P.” based in the coastal cities, as if two parties with limited, mutually hostile constituencies would fare better than one. They shoot elephants, don’t they?
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave a speech at AEI this afternoon (read the whole thing here), and though it’s been hailed as part of the House GOP’s much-needed, comprehensive reboot, it appears he’s mostly going it alone. Politico reports:
The future of Cantor’s proposals are unclear.
Some on Cantor’s staff said legislation will not be introduced after the speech, others say to expect a push on the House floor, which Cantor controls. Don’t mistake this for a leadership-wide effort: The speech was crafted inside Cantor’s office, with little input from Boehner’s and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s offices. It was unveiled at a meeting of top GOP leaders in the past few weeks, several sources said.
The speech resembles other independent attempts by Republican luminaries to claim the philosophical mantle of the post-Romney GOP by offering obvious policy prescriptions on things like school choice, hinting at their own ambitions, and, as Scott Galupo puts it, “soft-focusing the party’s agenda by talking about issues besides the federal budget.”
Various GOP players have emphasized different elements of the mix, but the song remains essentially the same.
Ted Cruz, an imperialist in Rawlsian bifocals who demonstrates his small-government cred by opposing defense cuts and sequestration and then advances his “opportunity conservatism” by voting against hurricane aid, is by far the least consistent. That he’s seen as a rising star is evidence of the institutional momentum of the conservative movement and Cruz’s willingness to say anything to curry favor with the people he wants to impress–what other reason could a freshman senator possibly have for being one of three to vote against John Kerry’s confirmation?
Bobby Jindal’s blunt speech to the Republican National Committee was the most convincing, and his vision is the most likely to win elections. Rod is right that some parts seemed like reheated Reagan boilerplate, like talking about shifting from “managing government and toward the mission of growth,” at a time when most Americans have made their peace with Big Government and the GOP might have more success effectively managing it rather than promising its abolition.
But he also hit all the notes I’d want to see from a re-energized Republican Party, starting with the call to abandon the party’s protection of big business–”we must not be the party that simply protects the well off so they can keep their toys.” Also a commitment to devolution, quixotic and difficult as it might be–”If it’s worth doing, block grant it to the states. If it’s something you don’t trust the states to do, then maybe Washington shouldn’t do it at all. We believe solving problems closer to home should always be our first, not last, option.”
One doesn’t get the impression Jindal is quite ready to admit that Lockheed Martin might also belong in the category of big business, but it’s a start.
As for Cantor, he stuck mostly to familiar GOP priorities like tax reform and school choice, also mentioning immigration and ending the medical device tax. As Justin Green points out, he all but endorsed the DREAM Act in principle. The overall sense was of Cantor trying to put on a more compassionate face, appearing with schoolkids, a nurse, and relating a story of a child with cancer his family got to know in Richmond. He also mentioned his brief jaunt to a Petworth school yesterday, observing first-hand the success of DC’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. Insofar as his speech indicates a commitment to govern in ways beyond fighting over the budget, it’s good news, not to mention politically necessary, especially since the GOP has the upper hand on school choice.
Republican candidates lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. If the GOP is to survive as a national party, it needs to appeal to new constituencies. Could city dwellers be part of the solution? The Harvard economist Ed Glaeser says yes (with an echo from Aaron M. Renn):
The Republicans’ abandonment of the city is good neither for their party nor for urban America. The GOP clearly needs a heftier percentage of the urban vote, but winning it by means of fiscal pandering or redistribution isn’t the way to go—partly because such a strategy would cost rural and suburban votes and partly because it would be wrong. A better approach is to offer the good ideas that cities desperately need. Republicans have plenty.
The ideas Glaeser identifies as especially promising include data-driven policing, school choice, contracting out city services, congestion pricing for driving and parking, and the removal of regulatory obstacles to housing construction. And he’s right that these are appealing reforms. Contrary to what many conservatives believe, urban policy is not necessarily a transfer of wealth from makers to takers. Metropolitan areas are the country’s economic engines–and good policies will make them even more productive.
But there’s little chance that Republicans will seize the opportunity. The most basic reason is historical. The Democratic Party has dominated America’s cities since the Age of Jackson. And while individual Republicans have occasionally succeeded in urban constituencies, they have rarely had much influence on the national party.
Glaeser cites the “Crisis of the Cities” section of the 1968 platform as evidence that the GOP used to care about urban issues. But platforms are notoriously insignificant. The real story for the Republican Party in the ’60s was the capture of the Sunbelt and the rural South. Republican interest in cities during this period had more to do with signalling to suburbanites that it would not allow urban blight to spill over into their communities than with a real electoral strategy.
Moreover, the social conservatism that defines the Republican Party is anathema to urban voters. A party that is loudly opposed to gay marriage and abortion will never be competitive in America’s cities. Glaeser dreams of a fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republicanism that might win in New York and its inner suburbs. But there aren’t enough votes to make this an appealing strategy on the national level: any gains in metropolitan areas would be wiped out by losses in the so-called base.
The problem for Republicans, then, isn’t that they’re ignoring chances to expand their coalition. It’s that they’re trapped by a dynamic in which serious outreach to new groups alienates existing supporters. As Daniel Larison has argued, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Don’t expect Republicans to take Manhattan any time soon.
In a recent column mocked by liberal bloggers, David Brooks earnestly suggested that President Obama, Senate Democrats, and the House GOP should “rebuild the habits of compromise, competence and trust” by working on a series of “realistic, incremental laws.”
With tongue nowhere near cheek, I think there’s a policy snag where this approach makes perfect sense: and that’s the Keystone XL proposal to build an oil (or, rather, bitumen) pipeline that stretches from Canada to Texas.
This should be a no-brainer at this point. The Obama administration’s refusal to approve the pipeline shadily cited a lack of time to review the proposal; a presidential statement last year noted that the delay was “not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline.” Well, time has passed. Environmental impact has been studied.
As the editors of the Washington Post observe:
TransCanada has reapplied with a new proposed route, and this week Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) signed off on the plan, following an analysis from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The regulators found that the new route would avoid the Sand Hills and other areas of concern. Though there is always some risk of spill, they said, “impacts on aquifers from a release should be localized, and Keystone would be responsible for any cleanup.” TransCanada will have to buy at least $200 million in insurance to cover any cleanup costs.
Adding to that, a letter signed by 53 senators, including nine Democrats, urged Obama to go ahead with the pipeline. “There is no reason to deny or further delay this long-studied project,” it said.
The decision to delay the pipeline reeked of election-year politics. Needless to say, the political calculus has changed. There’s a view that the rhetorical privileging of combating climate change in Obama’s second Inaugural Address will make it hard to throw environmentalists under the bus over Keystone. I think it makes it easier. Approving the pipeline offers Obama a small Nixon-to-China-like opportunity to say something like, We can safely fulfill our energy needs now while laying a foundation for a clean-energy future.
Back to Brooks’s point: Green-lighting the Keystone pipeline would be a relatively politically painless gesture of good faith to Republicans at the outset of what will likely be a series of contentious budget negotiations—a chance to show that he’s still the pragmatic problem-solver he has always claimed to be.
Last year, the administration pleaded for more time.
Seems to me, time is up.