How do parties change?

Over the weekend, my Salon column was about the GOP candidate rollouts last week, and how unimpressive they were on policy. I mean, not that they promoted foolish policies, but that they mostly don’t really do policy at all. Which follows on the Romney campaign, which also gave up early on policy.  I contrast it with George W. Bush, who actually did campaign on public policy ideas. It’s really worse than that; the current GOP not only isn’t very good at devising public policy solutions, but has mostly given up on recognizing problems. Yes, they did figure out that unemployment has been a significant problem over the last few years (John Boehner’s frequent refrain about “where are the jobs?” is quite appropriate for an out-party leader during a time of high unemployment), but even there they seem to forget about employment for months at a time, and of course their proposals to deal with it are identical to their policy response to pretty much everything since 1978 or so.

Where I see last week’s efforts by Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Bobby Jindal as examples of a general GOP problem, Jonathan Chait has an item about Rubio today which talks about the Florida Senator as particularly skilled at figuring out which way the GOP is going and jumping in front of the parade.

It seems to me that one big question here is whether there really is any room for a presidential candidate to lead in a somewhat different direction. I don’t know that there is! But presumably there is a fairly large Republican constituency which supports conservative policies but isn’t very pleased with the Rush Limbaugh/Fox News version of the policy.

A candidate ready to appeal to that constituency would probably need to be as pure as possible on policy and past history going in…as I’ve said many times, what’s wrong with the Republican Party isn’t that they are in a simple sense just too conservative.

But I suspect that there is room for a political entrepreneur who could find a space involving orthodox ideology, policy innovation, and a pointed rejection of some part of the uglier or more nihilistic portions of the conservative marketplace. I suspect there are quite a few Republican party actors who would prefer a party less subservient to whatever turns out to sell to the rubes who buy Glenn Beck’s latest products, and plenty of primary voters at least potentially willing to follow them.

Or at least, so I suspect. The problem with the last two rounds of GOP candidates have been that they’ve struggled to meet the standards of policy orthodoxy, and so they were poorly positioned to challenge the rest of it. And I don’t think that was just bad luck; part of the problem is that policy orthodoxy shifts all the time, thus making it hard for politicians to keep up (see, for example, the way that shifts on climate made lots of politicians who took positions in the last decade scramble around to prove their orthodoxy in 2012. Not to mention health care reform). Indeed: that instability is one of the reasons that I suspect a lot of party actors are ready for some pushback.

Or maybe not; perhaps anyone who tries to take on the crazy would be slapped back down. It should make for an interesting couple of election cycles.

At any rate — entrepreneurial candidates who can find ways to rearrange party coalitions like that should be one of the key ways that parties can change. Not the only way; it presumably could come from shifts in the size or importance or allegiance of party-aligned groups, or from activists putting issues on the party agenda. But surely one way. And perhaps the most likely path for the GOP out of their current problems.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.