The cautionary tone of Sarah Palin and many in the blogosphere is that the Republican Party seems to be doing its level best to alienate part of its base, but also non-traditional or potential Republican voters. This is not insignificant, and it bears examination, because the GOP cannot successfully nominate a candidate and recapture the White House in 2012 without all hands on deck. The GOP can’t afford to make very many people feel as though they have no home in the so-called “big tent,” but as usual, the party’s establishment is willing to extend to cover almost ever conceivable group but their core, and the adjuncts to that core that will make all the difference in November. If you doubt my contention, look at the comments on these pages, and what you will notice is that there is a growing body of constitutional conservatives and somewhat more independent libertarians who simply view the Republican party establishment as having become too liberal, and too progressive(a.k.a. socialist.) This is part of the problem the party faces as it marches toward the “inevitable” nomination of Mitt Romney, as conservatives and Tea Party folks look on in horror. The Paul-ites are preparing to evacuate altogether.
On Tuesday night, during the coverage of Iowa on FoxNews, Palin mentioned that the GOP ought to avoid alienating the approximately libertarian supporters of Ron Paul, and she’s correct. Driving them away would be part of a potential disaster. There’s also a broad base of people under the general banner of Tea Party who are not very happy with Romney, and are beginning to feel as though the GOP establishment has pushed them aside. Christian conservatives aren’t altogether thrilled at the moment. The establishment believes that it should run the party, without reference to the heart and soul that does most of the voting. The problem is this: Some of these subgroups have conflicting interests, and it is difficult to find a candidate who substantially satisfies all of them. What is needed is a candidate who can unite them, and despite the variety of candidates who have entered this race to date, none have been able to bridge the divides. The establishment is hoping that the various factions will simply come home to unite behind the eventual nominee, but that’s not happening quite so easily this year, but even if it largely happens, the fact remains that many are simply so dissatisfied and feel so thoroughly disenfranchised by the choices they now face that they are willing to sit out this presidential ballot.
On Tammy Bruce’s site on Wednesday evening, she posted a blog article by a Canadian poster who has watched what happens when a wide swath of a country’s conservatives are effectively disenfranchised, presenting a fascinating study in what happens when a party loses touch with its base, but more importantly, his article offers a distinct warning to the GOP: Don’t dismiss your grass-roots. One of the things that happens to a party large enough to gain electoral primacy is that all too often, they forget how they arrived in that position, or worse, begin to look at their grass roots activists as people to be managed and manipulated. This has happened repeatedly to the GOP, and its most recent occurrence began in 2006, when the grass roots stayed home. That brought the loss of Congress, but it also ultimately brought the 2008 victory of Barack Obama, because that same base stayed home.
The GOP’s dereliction of its duty is based on some of the problems I’ve been discussing this week, and the greater factor is the deal-making for the sake of a deal that led to the robust spending by the Bush administration and the Congress that enacted its legislative agenda. Conservatives and libertarians began to notice even before his second term that Bush had begun to substantially abandon any notion of significant entitlement reform, and had instead merely added another, while increasing spending on other liberal causes, such as the education bill, and all the rest. This began the collapse of the GOP.
Here’s the other problem: The libertarian faction who supports Ron Paul is not entirely enamored with the military spending that has characterized the GOP’s recent past. Of course, the truth of the matter is that our military spending is at a historical low as a portion of GDP, but it’s a much easier target than what really drives government expenditures: Entitlements. I think if the GOP could put up a credible candidate who would take an axe to the federal budget, bring spending under control, and perhaps tear down much of the federal regulatory leviathan, returning many issues to the purview of the states, I think it would go a long way to blunt their dissatisfaction. Of course, they’re going to need to learn to give a little too, but I think it’s possible with the right candidate.
The Tea Party crowd is concerned primarily with economic and fiscal issues, including taxation and the general growth of government. If they thought the nominee would take that same axe to federal spending, and get regulatory agencies out of the way of businesses and job creators, they’d be substantially willing to consider supporting the Republican party again. The Tea Party wants to see the dramatic deconstruction of government by virtue of an ethical administration, and they have every right to demand this from the GOP in exchange for their support. In this way, there is some significant overlap in interests between the Tea Party and the Paul-ites.
Another group that gets kicked around by the establishment is the cultural conservatives, often called the “Christian right,” who look at the devolution and diminution of our nation and point a finger quite accurately at the tendency of government to strip any notion of ethics acceptable to them from all of officialdom. They share many concerns with the other two groups, but they particularly focus on such as abortion because they see abortion as a vast evil. This is why Romney shifted his position, of course, and why Laura Bush and Barbara before her, were effectively gagged on the issue for eight years, and four years, respectively. The simple fact is that this segment of the GOP simply aren’t amenable to compromise on this issue, and without them, the GOP has recognized they cannot possibly win a national election, so the establishment largely plays “wink and nod,” making their chosen candidates at least nominally pro-life, but not actively so, and this maintains something of an uneasy peace between them. Whether Romney’s latter-day conversion on this issue will convince them remains to be seen, but they also have significant fiscal concerns that Romney’s 59-point plan doesn’t really address even if he settles their other concerns, because they also would like to see at least a hatchet taken to government spending.
There is one more group the GOP must capture, and they are what I call the pragmatists. They’re not attached to the cultural or Christian crowds, and they’re not activists. They really don’t much care about any of it except inasmuch as the current condition of their own lives is concerned. Analysts call them different things, but most call them “moderates” or “independents,” and this is the group that doesn’t really begin to watch elections until six or eight weeks before an election. This is the group both parties try to capture, and the group both parties are willing to offend their own bases to entice. The problem is, the analysts and hacks fundamentally misunderstand what makes this group tick, or their misunderstanding leads them to sacrifice some of the party’s base of support. The answer is that it depends entirely on how they feel about the state of their lies when they walk into the polling places on election day. They are governed by impressions and emotions, and their votes are not an intellectual exercise in pursuit of particular principles.
It is for the sake of capturing these moderates or independents that the party bosses sacrifice the base. It’s for them that the party hacks slice off bits of the grass roots in the hope that they’ll gain votes in the exchange. The problem is that as a strategy, it’s ultimately a loser. It means that you’re dependent upon the general feeling in the electorate being one of misery in order to oust an incumbent or their relative happiness to re-elect them. Principles don’t matter, and these voters don’t think beyond how they feel after breakfast. For this reason, they are the most volatile group within the electorate, and this may be why they confound so many analysts. In order to win, the expedient thing campaigns do is to appeal to this crowd on some basis, any basis at all, in order to get their votes.
That’s all well and good, but the problem is that what the party establishment is always willing to do to satisfy this crowd is to abandon the grass-roots. The reason this remains a mistake is simple: The moderates or independents aren’t paying such close attention to the specifics of issues, because that’s not what moves them. What they want is the status quo of their daily expectations: Their electricity is on, the water is running, the job is there, and there are groceries in the fridge. In this sense, they are the intellectual free-riders who don’t really care whether a socialist or a constitutionalist is president, so long as their basic conditions and expectations are being met. This is how they could tolerate a second term of Bill Clinton: He maintained what seemed a status quo to the abysmally uninformed, even as he advanced an increasingly virulent social agenda. This is how George Bush managed a second term, as the economy fought back from 9/11 through tougher times, but the general sense of insecurity represented in John Kerry caused this group to stay with the status quo.
Now we have a party willing to gamble its base on the notion that they won’t need them, because the general idea is that dissatisfaction militates against Barack Obama. There are reasons to suspect this is true, and it’s one more reason that Republicans shouldn’t be pushing a moderate like Romney, but the truth is that the party bosses have never been happy with populist conservatives, and they don’t feel they can risk a 1964-style outcome, which is the basic hope of the Democrats. They will paint any opponent to Barack Obama as a right-wing extremist, even Romney, though that claim is a lie most conservatives only wish could be the truth. What the establishment still fails to grasp is that in such an environment, a guy like Romney will be painted at once as a right-wing extremist and too little change to be worth the risk. More, they will have plenty of ammunition when they make the claim that Romney’s flip-flopping makes him unreliable on any issue.
The truth is that the old formula won’t work this year, and to rely upon it again is an act of stubborn intransigence on the part of the establishment. If ever there was to be a year in which you would bring in the base without alienating the various subsets of the party, 2012 would be that sort of year, much like 1980. This is not the sort of year in which the party can afford to anger its base. If the establishment loses in 2012 with Mitt Romney, it’s not only over for the GOP, but perhaps the end of the country. Dissatisfaction is also at historical highs, and all the party really needs is a competent candidate who will not offend the base. The establishment is hoping Romney can be that candidate, but thus far, his numbers don’t support that premise. The riddle really is a question about whether any of the current crop can substantially unite the party, but at present, the answer seems to be a resounding “no.” Romney can’t really capture the South, but neither will Rick Santorum or Ron Paul. Newt Gingrich might be better positioned had he performed better in Iowa, and Perry might gain some traction in the South with conservative Christians.
This is why the GOP really does need another Reagan, who can appeal to all of these disparate groups and unite them, but still not offend those independents or moderates to the degree that they feel so uncomfortable that they lose their discomfort with the status quo. As I’ve explained throughout the last week, there are a number of reasons to believe that Romney is incapable of satisfying these criteria, and if the party goes with him, they may see not only a Presidential defeat, but perhaps worse, one on the Congressional side. Palin stated it best in explaining that all of this is beginning to agitate in favor of yet another candidate, and while some assume she might have included herself in the list of possibilities, the truth is if it isn’t her, it would need to be somebody much like her in terms of track record, and at present, I haven’t a clue who that might be.