We Have Met the Enemy And He Is Us

So what if the most honest self-evaluation of the Republican Party concluded “We’re screwed!”

That’s sorta the impression left by Matthew Continetti’s piece in the Weekly Standard entitled “The Double Bind.”

And the impact of his analysis, unless there’s just a collective decision to ignore it, could be significant. He is not, after all, some tweedy RINO interested in high-fives from the MSM or the opposition; he’s a stone partisan warrior (founder of the Washington Free Beacon and hagiographer of Sarah Palin) who would very much like to bring liberals weeping to their knees. He’s the sort of guy who would probably be quite happy if a one-party dictatorship could be established, or who may think the godless “elites” have already established one.

But he’s not in denial when it comes to the political dilemmas facing the Republican Party, which he neatly summarizes in a few graphs:

Here’s the problem. The domestic proposals that have the greatest chance of making the Republican party attractive to the “coalition of the ascendant”—immigrants, members of the millennial generation, single white women—involve far more government intervention in the economy than the GOP coalition—married white people, Wall Street, the Tea Party—will allow. And we haven’t even mentioned changing the GOP approach to social issues, which would drive the Republican base of religious conservatives out of the party. Pursuing such proposals would break the coalition that puts Republicans close to a majority.

On the other hand, sticking with the policies that glue this so-close-to-a-majority coalition together would foreclose the possibility of expanding the GOP vote. And it would limit the vote Republicans pull from disaffected voters who used to support the GOP but have turned away for various reasons.

There’s more. Trying to appeal to the coalition of the ascendant and the Reagan coalition simultaneously would give the party a severe case of political schizophrenia. The GOP would bewilder its historic base of support while disappointing newcomers, leading to confusion, disillusionment, apathy, and perhaps (ultimately) dissolution.

Continetti then goes through various suggestions for how Republicans can create a new electoral majority–notably that of Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, which I’ve written about here–and shows how they won’t work because one or more significant constituencies will veto it, or the targets of risky base-alienating “outreach” won’t be attracted. This passage is particularly pungent:

Imagine that an ambitious Republican barnstormed the country calling for an end to federal ownership of or investment in private companies, a flat-rate corporate tax with no loopholes or subsidies, a cap on the size banks can grow as a percentage of the economy, a major reform of federal involvement in education, including a national curriculum and changing the way school is financed, and additional rounds of deregulation. Business and social conservatives would slam him. Wall Street would not fund him. And the “coalition of the ascendant” would wonder, how does this help us?

On second thought, you don’t have to imagine this because an actual Republican, Jon Huntsman, barnstormed the country in 2011 with something closely resembling this agenda. And look what happened to him.

The most surprising thing about Continetti’s piece is that he doesn’t note (other than indirectly) the most obvious precedent for the efforts of today’s would-be “reformists:” Karl Rove’s strategy for taking a solid but slightly-submajority GOP base up a notch during George W. Bush’s first term. It was a “base-in” strategy (as opposed to the more familiar “center-out” strategy deployed most famously by Bill Clinton) that gave GOP base constituencies everything they wanted, while offering highly targeted public policy goodies to “swing” constituencies that could put the GOP over the top (see Stan Greenberg’s 2004 book The Two Americas for more detail on Rove’s strategy, which the Boy Genius never fully articulated himself, at least in public). So you had No Child Left Behind for married women with kids; Medicare Part D for the old folks; and comprehensive immigration reform for Hispanics. None of this worked out perfectly, but Bush did get re-elected in 2004. But he and the GOP paid a big psychic price for this victory in the buried resentment of conservative activists, which eventually burst through in the wave of recriminations towards Bush and “big government conservatism” in and after 2008, when this theme became the major justification for an otherwise counter-intuitive party swing to the Right.

There’s no particular reason to think the “base-in” strategies being discussed today–at least among the very small minority of Republican thinkers and gabbers who are willing to admit the party has real problems that can’t be fixed with technology or “messaging” improvements–will be any easier to pull off, as Continetti persuasively demonstrates.

So what’s his solution? Citing a column by Irving Kristol (father of the current editor of the Weekly Standard) from the 1970s, Continetti thinks eventually Republicans are going to have embrace a “conservative welfare state,” which could be roughly defined as an activist (if decentralized) government working to strengthen “pre-liberal institutions” like families and religious entities. He doesn’t bother to note that this is pretty much what major conservative parties in other advanced democracies have done, but I guess that wouldn’t be persuasive to big believers in “American exceptionalism.” Actually, none of his prescriptions will draw immediate rave reviews on the right:

Imagining a conservative welfare state requires Republicans to revisit some of the assumptions they have held since the end of the Cold War. Maybe the foremost concern of most Americans is not the top marginal income tax rate. Maybe you can’t seriously lower health care costs without radically overhauling the way we pay for health care. Maybe a political party can’t address adequately such middle-class concerns as school quality and transportation without using the power of government. Maybe the globalization of capital and products and labor hasn’t been an unimpeachable good.

And maybe, just maybe, our institutions would work a lot better if we had two major parties who pursued their own notions of “good government” instead of having one that celebrated sabotaging government whether in charge of it or in opposition.

Continetti closes by suggesting, as is common in pleas for significant political change, that it may take some exemplary leader like Reagan (ironically) to usher in the era of the “conservative welfare state,” and convince Republicans to abandon their illusions. The ritualistic invocation of RR’s holy name in this particular cause may greatly offend his intended audience, since one of their chief illusions is that Reagan presided over a latter-day Coolidge Administration that was steering the nation towards prelapsarian innocence until the treacherous Bushes and the wily Clinton (not to mention the Kenyan socialist Obama) spoiled his legacy. But conservative denialists will have a harder time rebutting his argument that the path they are on currently leads straight to nowhere.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.