Since I often cite Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck’s 1989 essay “The Politics of Evasion” as a key document in the “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” that broke out in the 1980s and 1990s, I was delighted to see the duo have reprised that document’s themes for the benefit of Republicans trying to (or trying not to, as the case may be) reform their own party after two consecutive presidential defeats.
“The New Politics of Evasion,” in the new issue of Democracy, argues that today’s Republicans are suffering from some of the same maladies–or “evasions”–as yesterday’s Democrats. These include an unwillingness to adapt to changing demographics; a refusal to promote messages and policy initiatives that are responsive to the challenges perceived by a majority of voters; a resistance to ideological and policy-position changes; a geographical disadvantage that is the opposite of the old 1980s GOP Electoral College Lock; and a tendency to rely on an institutional redoubt (e.g., the House and state and local governments, in a direct inversion of the situation in the late 1980s). As several participants in the old Democratic Leadership Council have done (myself included), Galston and Kamarck look upon nascent Republican reform efforts and adjudge them as promising but too little rooted among political practitioners, and too unwilling to tell harsh truths at the cost of making intraparty enemies.
It’s all great reading, and the authors also in passing usefully evaluate what they did and didn’t get right about American political trends back in 1989, from the perspective of how things turned out. They obviously have every reason to believe that Bill Clinton (and indirectly, Barack Obama) beneficially took their advice to heart, and additionally, they are gratified by demographic changes that have made it much easier, all things being equal, for Democrats to win presidential elections. Most importantly, they conclude that the coalition of the Democratic Party today–with less dominant liberals but also with fewer conservatives, and liberals and moderates in rough balance–is a strength rather than a weakness is contending with an ideologically uniform GOP.
What I wish they had grappled with (as I try to grapple with every time I write about the contemporary GOP in any broad manner) is the willingness of many conservatives today (like some liberals yesterday) to accept all the criticism and advice and say: “No thanks, I’d prefer to lose than to change.” My own memory is that some orthodox liberal folk back in the day seemed to be waiting for the perfect external circumstances to create a “perfect storm” election in which victory would be assured without the painful adjustments and compromises less patient Democrats were willing to accept. This is clearly an important factor for today’s Republicans, who mistakenly thought the economy of 2012 all but guaranteed a presidential win and thus spent the entire nomination process hamstringing their nominee with ideological commitments.
When the “debate” over the future of a political party is often between “evaders” who avoid or rationalize uncomfortable truths and opportunists who are focused on long-term ideological goals that require a disciplined, if sometimes losing, ideological party, it’s really hard to talk anyone into a change of direction. Perhaps, as Galston and Kamarck say, their original essay is “enjoying a samizdat revival in Republican circles,” and the new essay will circulate more widely and freely. But until the change appears in the foundation of a major intraparty reform organization, or a major politician or group of politicians emerge to champion it, there’s no particular reason to think it’s actually happening. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are hardly telling brave but painful truths to the Republican activist “base,” and there’s little about retreads like Jeb Bush or throwbacks like Chris Christie to show reform is in the wings (recall the hopes placed on poor old Tim Pawlenty by would-be reformers in 2012!). So I suspect it’s a cycle or two off in the future, unless Republicans get lucky and win without changing their ways at all.