Defining Political Success

In politics, there’s certainly a sense in which the best measure of success is elections won vs. elections lost, and so it can be honestly said that the Republican Party is currently more successful than they’ve been at any time since 1928. The rationale for saying this is based on the current balance of power across the board, from Congress, to state houses, to state legislatures.

The 2014 election yielded the highest number of GOP House members since 1928, and the second highest number of GOP senators. There are currently 31 Republican governors. The GOP controls 70 percent of state legislatures and enjoys single-party rule in 25 states.

But, a healthy, successful party can’t be so weak that its supporters can write off any hope of winning a presidential election in April as former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson does this morning in the Washington Post.

Consider: If Republicans had fielded a strong presidential nominee this year, who managed to win a winnable election, the party’s success would have been more comprehensive than any since 1980. The tragedy is not that Republicans are on the verge of self-destruction; it is that they were on the verge of victory, and threw it away.

The thing that Gerson should consider, but does not, is how and why the Republicans are failing to field a strong presidential nominee this year. Because the answer badly undermines his assertion that his party is “brimming with health.”

This singular failure is not a small thing for the GOP. The patient is brimming with health and vigor in every way, except for the missing head. Either of this year’s likely Republican failures would complicate the job of candidates down the ticket and alienate demographic groups that are essential to future national victories.

Let’s review a few recent events. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was supposed to be the ideas guy for the GOP. He was the one who was listening to the Reformicons. But he lost a primary to an unknown tea partying college professor and then saw his preferred Reformicon champions (Jeb, Christie, Walker, and Rubio) fizzle on the campaign trail. These were the folks who at least had some theories about what the federal government should do, and who recognized that a president can’t lead a Party of No. But it turned out that the Republican base is more interested in firing these people than hiring them.

In the midst of their failures, a coup occurred in the House of Representatives, driven entirely by the fact that Republican lawmakers refused to follow the leadership of Speaker of the House John Boehner. Because they wouldn’t back his decision making, he had been forced to govern with a mostly Democratic caucus. The Democrats went along with funding the government even though they had almost no say in how the money was spent, but even this wasn’t good enough for the House Republicans. Rather than be forced out, John Boehner quit. And I don’t think a Speaker of the House would quit if he were leading a party that is brimming with health.

That the Republicans have had a lot of electoral success lately is indisputable, but the way they’ve achieved this success is not healthy, and that’s why I have to quibble with what Gerson says here:

The second fever [the Republicans need to break] is less common in the United States than in Europe, but it is a particularly vicious strain. This is the claim by right-wing populists that Republicans need to completely reorient their ideology in favor of nativism, protectionism and isolationism in order to appeal to working-class whites. This was the message of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns starting in the 1990s. With Trump, it is back in full force.

The problem? Aside from the fact that protectionism is self-destructive economic policy, and isolationism is disastrous foreign policy, an attempt to pump up the white vote with nativist rhetoric alienates just about everyone else.

I’m sorry, but the problem is not that nativist rhetoric alienates so many people that it makes winning a presidential election impossible. The problem is that racism is wrong. Racism is not healthy. Racism is the cheap way out. It’s a cynical short-cut. It’s the opposite of moral leadership. It’s a form of ethical bankruptcy. It’s shameful, and meritless.

If you have political success that way, it’s the equivalent of getting rich by defrauding a bunch of people. You don’t judge the health and worth of people solely by how much money they have accumulated, and you can’t judge political parties that way either.

And it’s not just racism that’s a big problem. It’s also a strain of anti-intellectualism that makes it impossible to have a rational political dialogue in this country, and that prevents the Republicans from recognizing problems or crafting realistic solutions.

Just yesterday, I wrote about how the Republican base is under immense economic and cultural pressure and is literally smoking, drinking, drugging and suiciding itself to death. When you have a population in those kind of circumstances, how you choose to lead them matters a lot. If you appeal to their dark side, you can mobilize some of the worst human instincts and emotions for your political benefit. That’s what those who “reorient their ideology in favor of nativism, protectionism and isolationism in order to appeal to working-class whites” are doing, and Gerson is correct to call them out for it. But this is the strategy that has worked for the Republican Party in the Obama Era, and it’s why they’ve had enough success that Gerson can say that the party is “brimming with health.”

It’s a cliché at this point to argue that the Republicans are like Dr. Frankenstein. Maybe you prefer to talk about a deal with Mephistopheles. It certainly appears that the deal with the devil brought the Republicans downticket success at the price of presidential viability, although we still have an election to conduct and votes to count before we can say that with absolute certainty.

What we can say already is that the Republicans don’t deserve to win the presidency because they’ve lost the moral credibility to argue that they’ve earned it.

They have a base of voters who are in desperate need of help, but conservatives have no answers for them that don’t involve denying them access to health care, reducing their retirement security, building walls around the country, and expelling or denying entry to millions of people. They’d rather talk about a fictional War on Christmas and transgender people in the bathroom than deal with an opioid epidemic that has grown into a full-blown catastrophe for their supporters.

What’s needed is actual positive leadership. The right needs a leader who appeals to the best human instincts and emotions. And they need this, not because it’s in any way guaranteed to bring them electoral success, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.