TAC, as you’d expect, has been early to the recriminations game, with good pieces from most of our regular bloggers – and a great piece from Daniel McCarthy today – about how the GOP backed itself into its current dead-end.
I want to endorse much of McCarthy’s analysis, but I think what McCarthy refers to as a “national” party is really a “governing” party – a party you can broadly trust with control of the reins of power. At the risk of sounding like a concern troll (since I have no loyalty to the GOP, and identify more with the Democrats at this point), I’ll throw my 2c in just to say what it would take for me to feel that the GOP has decided to become a governing party again.
What I’ll be looking for is basically two things. First, will a credible, mainstream leader of the GOP advocate a non-hawkish foreign policy. Second, will a credible, mainstream leader of the GOP oppose the “no tax” pledge.
Conor Friedersdorf gets it pretty much exactly right in his recent piece: the mainstream of the GOP has completely wasted the past four years refusing to even think intelligibly about foreign policy, and as a result has completely lost the party’s once historic advantage in foreign affairs. So long as Presidential nominees are required to compete over who is more of a super-hawk, the GOP is not going to be trusted on this question – or, if they are, that will be a very dangerous sign for the health of America.
There are lots of alternatives to uber-hawkishness besides Ron Paul-style non-interventionism. Liberal internationalism and traditional realism are the two most obvious of such alternatives, and no doubt there are more. My bar is relatively low: that the GOP begin to actually debate foreign policy, as if there might be multiple possible answers to foreign policy questions, and as if you don’t automatically win by staking out the most hawkish position.
Similarly on taxes, where GOP primaries have become a contest over who can offer the most extravagant tax-cut plan (leavened with some concern about electability). The most telling moment in the GOP primary debates from my perspective was when the entire field of candidates refused a deficit reduction deal premised on $10 in spending cuts for every $1 of tax hikes. The national GOP’s position, right now, is that there are no circumstances whatsoever that justify increases in taxes. That is not a position of a governing party – period.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe there is some world in which the Federal government is so small that we could cut taxes from their current level and still balance our national budget. Conservatives complain all the time that the GOP talks a big game about cutting spending or getting rid of intrusive government, but then fails to deliver (or delivers quite the opposite, as in the last Administration), but this gap between rhetoric and reality is a direct consequence of not actually wanting to govern. A governing party does not make policy – in any area – on the basis of theoretical notions about some ideal world, and dismiss all other considerations.
These two areas matter enormously for their own sakes. But they also matter because they are the areas where it is most obvious that the GOP is, quite simply, refusing to govern.
I refer to a “mainstream faction” because, on the one hand, it’s not enough for an ideologically extreme faction like the Paul movement to advocate a foreign policy of non-intervention (because the rest of the party basically ignores him), and it’s not enough for an across-the-board moderate like, say, Olympia Snowe to show flexibility on taxes (because showing flexibility is basically her job). A completely mainstream figure like Mitch Daniels or Tom Coburn or Jeb Bush needs to stand up and say: I want to govern, and this is what being prepared to govern means. And then run for President on that. And be prepared to lose if it comes to that. Because even losing would be useful, much as Gary Hart’s loss in 1984 was useful to the Democrats in their process of reform.
The GOP can continue to function as a party opposed to all tax increases and in favor of the most hawkish position on all foreign policy questions. But, from my perspective, it cannot be a governing party. It can only operate as a brake on (or goad to) the ambitions of some other party, which would then be the only proper party to trust with the power of the Executive.
(As an aside, what I will not be looking for is anything in particular on the “social issues” front. I view these issues almost entirely as a distraction – a way of dividing the country into tribes to make it easier to win votes without looking after people’s interests. That doesn’t mean I don’t think issues like abortion or gay marriage matter, or that I have no opinions about them. It means that I think the politics of these issues mostly amounts to an irrational arms race. I will admit, though, I tend to avoid candidates who seem to care mostly about these kinds of questions – whether it’s Mike Huckabee or Barbara Boxer – precisely because that suggests to me their own priorities are skewed.)