Peter Beinart, fomerly of The New Republic and a victim of the anti-war online left, wrote an interesting op-ed in today’s WaPo. Basically, he compares the state of the GOP with the state of the Democrats in the 80s:
Imitation may be flattering, but in this case, it comes with a large scoop of irony. Because while Democrats are enrolling in GOP 101, the GOP itself is in free fall. According to a recent NBC–Wall Street Journal poll, only 28 percent of Americans view the party positively. Asked which party they’d like to take the White House in 2008, respondents favored the Democrats by almost 20 points. To recover, Republicans will have to do something they haven’t done in decades: learn from the other guys.
Democrats 101 starts with a little history. In the 1980s, it was Democrats who were politically radioactive. They were hemorrhaging swing voters, especially independents and the young. And on such issues as welfare and crime, the party’s activist base imposed litmus tests that rendered Democratic presidential candidates unelectable in most places south and west of Harvard Square.
I agree with parts of his comparison to the 1980s Democrats. But there has been a fundamental shift. The conservative movement brought on a real ideological re-alignment of our country. They did it with an incredible infrastructure, as Beinart notes:
In the past few years, Democrats have gotten pretty good at mimicking Republicans. They’ve been training college activists, establishing think tanks and, more generally, trying to turn their party into a movement — just what conservatives did during their years in the pre-Reagan wilderness. As John Podesta, head of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, told the New York Times Magazine a while back, "I describe myself as having a master’s degree in the right-wing conspiracy."
The Democrats had no such thing. What is going on as I see it, is the final stage of realignment, combined with dramtic successes of the GOP. I still don’t hear the Democratic Party having an agenda that is substantially different from that of the 70s and 80s. They have universal healthcare (completing the Great Society). They have withdrawal from a war (Iraq, not Vietnam). They have higher taxes and redistribution. They are more afraid of trade, and still afraid of Asian competition. (then Japan, now China) Instead of civil rights crusades, which they borrowed from religious leaders and Republicans, they pander to ethnic groups. Perhaps the most significant change since the 60s-80s is the shift of social liberals into the Democratic Party, today being organized primarily by the online left. For example, a person with this bio was almost certainly a Republican back in the day:
Bush was involved with the American Birth Control League as early as 1942, and served as the treasurer of the first national capital campaign of Planned Parenthood in 1947. Bush was also an early supporter of the United Negro College Fund, serving as chairman of the Connecticut branch in 1951.
This is Prescott Bush, the President’s grandfather and former GOP US Senator from CT. Now this is clearly the bio of Democrat. On the other hand, religious traditionalists (although, on theological grounds this term is both incoherent and ahistorical) have renewed their involvement in politics as a driving force.
While I agree with the dour assessment of the GOP, I think that his analysis needs real correctives.
First, the GOP has (had?) succeeded for nearly 20 years at really critical points. The Cold War was won. Welfare rolls were cut and poverty fell. Tax rates were cut nearly 50%. Inflation has fallen by nearly 10 times and is, by many estimates, a problem of the past. The standard of living has improved dramatically. (yes, I know about the stagnating wage, but can you really doubt that the life of someone on the median income is not dramatically better?) America is still the economic leader of the world. We are the only country that is willing to invest blood and treasure in our values around the world. After 20 years of transforming America and the world, the GOP is running low on ideas. And the conservative movement is fighting yesterday’s wars.
Second, the leaders of the conservative movement are getting old. They have been fighting for 40+ years with tremendous success. For example, Morton Blackwell was a floor leader in the convention fight that led to the Goldwater take over in the Young Republicans in 1963. He later was a co-founder of Heritage and the Leadership Institute. And while they have changed with the time, there is a limit to the amount that you can ask of these people.
Third, as the major bullet-points of the agenda have been implemented, the organizations, people, etc. that supported these changes have become transactional and, in some cases, corrupt.
There is no question that the conservative movement needs a renewal. It needs new ideas, new organizations, new people, and new technologies. This is a natural transition. The point is that a new group of leaders needs to step up. We need ideas, politics, etc. Most fundamentally, we need to start answering the questions of today and tomorrow, not refight Reagan’s fight. After all, nearly all of the great evils of his day are dead: the Soviets, confiscatory taxes, confiscatory inflation, outrageous moral decay, etc.
So my biggest problem is with this sentence from Beinart:
That’s the problem with a party becoming a movement. For decades, Republicans have built institutions that empower conservative activists and marginalize everybody else.
No. The problem with the movement is that its logic is spent. (for now)
Now, the Beinart’s medicine is that Republicans need a Republican Leadership Committee (recently set up) to be a Republican sister organization to the Democratic Leadership Committee:
Republicans should be taking notes. There is a Republican Leadership Council, but like other moderate Republican groups, it lacks intellectual heft and political muscle. Today’s GOP needs an organization strong enough to fight the hegemony of the Iowa caucuses, where hard-right activists dominate and centrist candidates go to die. It needs think tanks that offer serious answers on global warming and universal health care, where conservative orthodoxy is increasingly detached from political reality. And it needs to open up more primary voting to independents, the people who powered John McCain’s crusade against the party base in 2000.
Like the DLC, this could be an important transition strategy. However, the deeper problem is that we need to re-evaluate and re-configure our core issues so that they appeal to 60-70% of the American people. After all, and as I have noted, you cannot win elections without independents. Right now the Dems are winning because the GOP is not competing. "You can’t beat something with nothing."
It is time for a renewal. It is time to build something.