Throughout a long week of scandal, the growing evidence of wrongdoing in the executive branch has buffeted Democrats. Like President Obama, who was slow to realize the danger to his presidency, his supporters were initially put back on their heels by the triple threat posed by the Benghazi investigation, the Justice Department’s seizure of the Associated Press’s phone records and, most damning of all, the Internal Revenue Service’s discriminatory practices. But also like the president, who took to the road today to resume his attempt to blame the interest in these issues on his opponents’ narrow partisanship, liberals are starting to speak out to minimize the importance of the scandals.
The left is working hard to classify Benghazi as a “political circus”; blame the AP for being subjected to an unprecedented phone records grab; or to say the real problem in the IRS affair is that right-wing groups attempt to gain nonprofit status. But while they are having mixed success with those efforts, they are gaining some traction with the notion that the real problem today is not the administration’s incompetence or malfeasance but overreaching on the part of Republicans.
Indeed, Republicans are already second-guessing themselves about how hard to hit the president on the scandals, with liberals using those doubts to help craft a narrative in which the real threat to the republic is an extremist GOP. There are good reasons to fear that Republican hotheads will distract the public from Obama’s troubles but it should be understood that this storyline is essentially bogus. However the president’s opposition plays their hand, any attempt to shift the focus from the administration and the president to those who are attempting to make him accountable for the government’s behavior is a yet another attempt to deceive the public.
With only one day left before the special election in South Carolina’s First Congressional District, the race is still a virtual tossup between former Republican governor Mark Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, though polls appear to be trending in the favor of the GOP standard-bearer. While still too close to call, the fact that Sanford appears to have gained ground even after more attention has been diverted to his personal failings demonstrates that it may be impossible for even a candidacy as troubled as that of Sanford to lose a seat in that red a district.
That may seem like good news to Republicans who dread the idea of allowing Nancy Pelosi to get one seat closer to regaining the speakership. But, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza pointed out today, a Sanford victory may well be even better news for the Democrats than a Busch victory. The thinking here is that he’s absolutely correct for three reasons.
The debate about immigration reform was already heating up on the right even before the revelation that the Boston Marathon bombing gave an excuse to some in Congress to put off consideration of the topic. As Seth noted, Senator Rand Paul’s decision to pull back on the issue makes it possible the topic could be used by the libertarian leader or some other conservative as an issue against gang-of-eight member Senator Marco Rubio. And with the influential Heritage Foundation’s new leader, former Senator Jim Demint, going all out to stop the bipartisan compromise that Rubio is fronting, getting the bill through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will not be easy.
Reform advocates did get a boost yesterday when Representative Paul Ryan indicated his support of the underlying principles of the bill even if he did not formally endorse it. Ryan has a great deal of influence with House Republicans as well as Speaker John Boehner, but his chances of rallying the GOP against DeMint’s push won’t be helped by a Politico feature that argues that the passage of the bill effectively ensures that the Democrats won’t be losing any national elections in the foreseeable future. The piece argues that if the 11 million illegal immigrants take advantage of the path to citizenship offered by the Senate bill, the reform will produce an “electoral bonanza for Democrats and cripple Republican prospects in many states they now win easily.”
This is exactly the kind of talk designed to scare the GOP grass roots into insensibility, since many of them already believe that a biased liberal media, voter fraud and the generous federal patronage plums and benefits have created an uphill slog for any Republican in a national election. But while the logic of this assumption of a windfall of potential Democratic voters can’t be ignored, Republicans would be foolish to assume that it makes sense for them to stonewall immigration reform. If they truly wish to continue as a national political force and as a natural party of government they must reject the idea that keeping more Hispanics out of the United States is their only hope of survival.
My colleague Peter Wehner picked up the rhetorical gauntlet flung in the face of George W. Bush by Walter Russell Mead and did much to vindicate the tarnished honor of the administration in which he served so honorably. Like Pete, I think the 43rd president has gotten a raw deal in most respects from the court of public opinion and will ultimately be vindicated by history, if not the mainstream media.
Pete went to some length to answer the charge that Bush’s eight years in office was “a political disaster for the president’s party” and that it generated a “headwind of well-merited public distrust” for Republicans. There is a strong case to make against Mead’s assertion that the public distrust he speaks of was “well merited.” But the idea that there is much point arguing about whether it was a “political disaster” in terms of the GOP’s current dilemma strikes me as a waste of time, if not utterly futile. The accumulated weight of a profligate GOP Congress, the bad optics of Katrina, the casualties in Iraq and the financial crisis that struck the country in the fall of 2008 created an image of the Bush administration that might be unfair but is nonetheless indelible. It may be never too early to correct the historical record on all of these issues, as Pete and the other writers he referenced have done, but the relevance of this exercise to the politics of 2013 or even 2016 is limited. It may be the duty of the historian to try and chip away at the narrative that Bush failed, but to argue that the perception of this record is not a heavy burden for Republicans to carry or that it can be undone by refighting the political battles of 2001 to 2008 is a mistake. Mead’s critics may be right about the history, but they can only be said to be correct about the politics if their argument is that deeply engrained public perceptions shouldn’t count. Unfortunately, they do.
One of the great clichés of literature is Leo Tolstoy’s assertion in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike but all unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. The same thing could be said of political candidates. All good candidates, be they conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, have many of the same personal qualities that make for effective retail politics in terms of personal appeal and even intelligence (though that appears at times to be optional rather than a requirement). But bad candidates come in all shapes and sizes.
That is a lesson that the Republican Party has learned to its regret in the last couple of election cycles and may well again in South Carolina this spring. While the months since the Democrats’ victory last November have been filled with non-stop recriminations from Republicans about the quality of their candidates as well as advice from liberals to junk conservative ideology, the idea that the Tea Party is the GOP’s main albatross is one that conservatives have stiffly and rightly resisted. That point has been reinforced by what happened last night in the Palmetto State. The decision of Republican primary voters to nominate former governor Mark Sanford to run in the special election to fill the vacancy in his old congressional district has sent a shiver down the spines of GOP operatives as they rightly fear he will lose a seat that their party shouldn’t even have to worry about.
With the sequester all but certain to go into effect at the end of the month, the only suspense associated with the topic is whether the Democratic expectation that the public will blame it all on the Republicans will be vindicated in the coming weeks. So far, polls show them to be largely correct, and should the administration’s predictions of post-sequester doom and gloom come true it may not be possible for the GOP to resist the pressure to give in to the president’s demands for more tax increases.
This belief in Republican defeat on the sequester is based in part on the experience of the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling deadlines, when the House majority believed it had no choice but to fold or face the wrath of an outraged nation. It may be that sequester-related chaos at the airports and the border–to cite two particular departments whose secretaries took to the airwaves in recent days to play Chicken Little–will be enough to stamped the GOP again. Of course, many Republicans are also rightly worried about the impact of the draconian across-the-board cuts on national defense. But integral to the idea that the party give in is the thesis that this confrontation will lead inevitably to victory for the Democrats in the 2014 midterms. But as Stu Rothenberg points out in Roll Call, this is a rather weak argument for those urging Republican sequester surrender.
Our Peter Wehner and his colleague Michael Gerson have made a valuable contribution to the debate about the future of the Republican Party with their feature in the March issue of COMMENTARY. Their evaluation of the factors that led to the GOP defeat in 2012 seems to be unexceptionable. While there will be some who will disagree with some aspects of their five recommendations for steps to take to revive the party and help expand its appeal, this manifesto is an excellent starting point for a discussion that can and must be held.
While I concur with many of their conclusions, I would like to comment on another aspect of this conversation that ought to be taken into account as conservatives ponder how to adapt to changing circumstances. The cost of ignoring the need to reach out to a broader audience is obvious: electoral defeat. Yet while rebooting the party’s image and its focus is necessary, there is an inherent danger in the process that needs to be understood properly if Republicans are to avoid making a different mistake than that of being stuck in the political paradigms of the 1980s and 1990s. As bad as that might be, becoming the all too reasonable echoes of Democrats on major issues is just as much of a threat to their political future as anything else.
President Obama continued his campaign to demonize his opponents in the sequester standoff yesterday. Appearing on the radio show of racial huckster Al Sharpton, the president again attempted to frame the issue facing the country as one that pit the middle class and the poor against the wealthy. If Republicans refused to accede to his demands for a budget solution that would include more tax hikes, it was because affection for the wealthy was the core principle at the heart of their political coalition:
My sense is that their basic view is that nothing is important enough to raise taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations. And they would prefer to see these kinds of cuts that could slow down our recovery over closing tax loopholes, and that’s the thing that binds their party together at this point.
This is not just false but the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that gives the lie to the president’s pose of moderation and a willingness to reach out across the aisle. His claim that the rich don’t pay taxes is also false. So is the notion that it is only the wealthy who are being hurt by the government’s appetite for more “revenue” on his watch, as every American–be they rich, middle class or poor–found out last month when they saw their take-home pay drastically reduced by the increase in the payroll tax. But there is more to this debate than just Obama’s penchant for political talk. Conservatives do oppose tax increases as a general principle–not because they see it as their job to defend the wealthy but because they rightly understand their proper role as defending all Americans against the expansion of government power.
Republicans are experiencing a serious problem as they attempt to stand up to President Obama’s pressure to give in and raise taxes again in order to avert the sequester budget cuts. In spite of the fact that the idea for the scheme originated in the White House and that it is the president’s intransigence in insisting on more taxes rather than a spending solution, the public isn’t buying the GOP’s argument. Two new polls show not only that the president’s job approval rating is at its highest mark since his 2009 honeymoon, but that more people blame Republicans for the sequester and the damage it will do to the economy and national defense than blame Obama.
Democrats claim this is because they have the better argument when they put forward their so-called “balanced approach” to the deficit that calls, at least in theory, for both cuts and increased revenue. But though there may be some truth to this, when one looks deeper into the numbers it’s not clear this assertion stands up to scrutiny. As was the case last year when the country’s weak economy and the administration’s meager accomplishments seemed to guarantee the president’s defeat, Republicans are discovering anew that a situation that might sink another president is not hurting the incumbent’s public standing or giving them any leverage to resist his demands. The rules are just different for Barack Obama–and the sooner the GOP comes to grips with this reality, the better off they’ll be.
In reaction to my post on the intellectual unfreezing of the GOP, I received an e-mail from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.
His argument to me (which he said I am free to share) is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement has in fact developed sound policies without a president pushing and pulling it and that we’re beyond waiting for the next Ronald Reagan, having developed many Jack Kemps.
What Norquist means by that is that there are exciting and encouraging developments that are occurring in the House (see especially Representative Paul Ryan’s last two budgets) and in the states, where Republican governors are advancing reforms dealing with taxes, pensions, education and more. Mr. Norquist’s broader point is that Members of Congress, governors, and state legislators are making real progress in the “new ideas” department, and that deserves to be recognized.
President Obama is pulling out all the stops in his campaign to blame Republicans for the impending sequester disaster looming over the federal government. In spite of the fact that the sequester was his idea and that he has had ample opportunities to avert the devastating across-the-board cuts that may shortly go into effect, the president is following the same playbook he used during the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff negotiations. This morning’s White House speech in front of a backdrop of first responders was typical of the genre in which he relentlessly demagogued the issue and placed the blame for the loss of public employee jobs as well as the deleterious impact of the cuts on the economy and national defense squarely on Republicans.
His position is that he will not consider any effort to avert the sequester except one based on the so-called “balanced” approach in which even more tax increases are added on those the GOP agreed to in the fiscal cliff deal. Buoyed by his re-election and the way he was able to bulldoze the House majority last month, the president clearly believes he need do nothing to accommodate opposition concerns. If they stand their ground on tax hikes, he seems to think the public will absolve him and blast his foes.
Given the unpopularity of Congress, especially as opposed to the president’s relatively high job approval ratings, he may be right. That means if the sequester is to be avoided it will require another Republican collapse. Since, as Max Boot wrote earlier today, the costs of the sequester will be disastrous for national defense, some conservatives are arguing, as Max did, that the GOP has no choice but to give in. I sympathize with that concern but this is not advice that House Republicans can heed.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a leading thinker on the right, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that is worth reading. He argues that Republicans “slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones.”
Ponnuru provides examples; including pointing out that the top tax rate when Reagan took office was 70 percent v. 35 percent for most of the last decade. (The payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people.) He also points out Reagan inherited an economy in which inflation was in double digits v. just two percent over the last five years. The conditions we face in 2013 are, as one would expect, quite a bit different than what Reagan faced more than three decades ago.
In the March issue of COMMENTARY, Michael Gerson and I offer a similar argument, saying:
And it is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.
To be clear: Reasonable tax rates and sound monetary policy remain important economic commitments. But America now confronts a series of challenges that have to do with globalization, stagnant wages, the loss of blue-collar jobs, exploding health-care and college costs, and the collapse of the culture of marriage.
The Republican Party is in trouble: In the wake of the presidential election, everybody has said so, and everybody is right. From there, however, a hundred paths diverge and a thousand voices have been heard. The relevant questions are these: How deep is the trouble? How much of it is self-inflicted and how much is a function of circumstance? Can the problem be repaired, and if so, by what means?
These questions are ones the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson and I take up in the forthcoming (March) issue of COMMENTARY magazine.
The essay recapitulates presidential elections 1968-1988 v. 1992-2012 to show how dramatically things have shifted against the Republican Party; argues that the GOP faces systemic, not transient, problems; and provides a brief history of what Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did to revivify their parties. We believe the Republican Party is nearing a Clinton-Blair moment, meaning a substantial recalibration is necessary. It faces more than a “messaging problem.”
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made some headlines with his speech to the Republican National Committee yesterday in which he called out the GOP as having behaved like “the stupid party” in 2012. He is hardly alone in considering the infamous cracks of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock about rape and pregnancy to be classic examples of stupidity but the main point of his address wasn’t about the perils of nominating idiots for Senate seats. Instead, Jindal put forth a manifesto about how to revive conservatism in the age of Obama. His formula is deceptively simple: opt out of a rigged game focused on how to balance the budget and replace it with a populist approach in which big government is the target.
The idea is a powerful message and is exactly what the Republican grass roots wants to hear, especially the part in which the Washington is put down and state and local governments, such as the one Jindal leads, are lauded. He’s right that the current debate in the Capitol over things like the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff is being fought on the Democrats’ terms and has, predictably, led to GOP defeats. Jindal is also right that Republicans ought to be more interested in growing the economy than in enforcing austerity. But as much as his talk sounded like a winning approach to the 2016 presidential primaries in which he may be a serious competitor, the problem for his party is that opting out of the current debates on the debt and the budget is easy if your office is in located in Baton Rouge. It’s not an option for a House Republican caucus that remains the only real obstacle to President Obama’s plans for higher taxes and more spending in the next four years.
The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and is currently stuck in what may be a losing fight with Barack Obama over the budget and the debt ceiling. It also failed to take back the United States Senate in the past two election cycles because GOP primary voters chose poor candidates who were easily branded as extremists by vulnerable Democrats. This sorry situation has led to an orgy of soul searching by Republicans that has produced a raft of suggestions for how to do better in 2014 and 2016. Some of the ideas put forward for a GOP re-launch, such as a shift on immigration, are worth debating. So, too, is the notion that the party should do a better job recruiting and marketing candidates. But anyone who is trying to push the party to become a bland, and more moderate, alternative to the Democrats is selling a bill of goods.
That’s exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing in a piece published today by Politico in which he has the gall to invoke the shade of William F. Buckley on behalf of a campaign to make the GOP the sort of mushy moderate party that would embrace the 2013 version of Colin Powell. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who has made a good living playing the cranky partner to Mika Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC where he spends most mornings agreeing with a roster of mostly liberal guests about how bad conservatives have become. In that guise he gives cover to liberal slanders about the Tea Party and neoconservatives while embracing the likes of Powell and Chuck Hagel. That Powell and Hagel are his kind of Republicans in spite of the fact that between the two of them they’ve cast four votes for Obama for president tells you a lot about his idea of where the party should be heading. But his attempt to dragoon the late National Review editor into this argument is particularly misleading. Far from following Buckley’s example, what Scarborough does every day on TV is a classic example of the kind of Republican that Buckley despised and fought against.
On Friday, my friend and colleague Peter Wehner wrote about the question of how the Republican Party can avoid a repeat of the fiscal cliff debacle in the upcoming months as a new deadline for raising the debt ceiling looms. Throughout the last few weeks, Pete has been spot-on in his analysis of what he rightly called the Republicans’ “losing hand” as President Obama and the Democrats forced them to accept a terrible fiscal cliff deal. Though some think the debt ceiling discussion will be very different from the cliff debate, Pete fears the GOP is headed down the same path and will suffer if they allow themselves to be portrayed as holding the country hostage again. To avoid that accusation as well as what he accurately describes as the futile pretense that the president will negotiate in good faith, he advises that they preemptively take the debt ceiling issue off the table sooner rather than later.
There is much to be said for this point of view, but I don’t believe Republicans can or should do as he says. If the Republican majority in the House of Representatives were to concede on the debt ceiling now they might as well just go home and let the Democrats have their way without the fig leaf of a debate. Doing so would tear the party apart and lessen rather than enhance their chances of winning in the 2014 midterms. Though Pete is right about the calamity of a rerun of the GOP fiascos of 1995 and 2011 and 2012 when they were beaten in such confrontations, there is more than one way to lose a political fight. As much as House Republicans need to worry about being marginalized as extremists who are willing to allegedly sabotage the economy to make an ideological point, they also need to worry about playing the role of the pliant opposition that is unable and unwilling to offer a stark alternative to the Democrats.
It’s certainly true that negotiations over how to avoid going over the fiscal cliff were particularly difficult ones for Republicans. President Obama had a huge negotiating advantage: If a deal wasn’t struck, taxes would go up on everyone, not just the high-income earners, and the military would be decimated by deep spending cuts. Presumably Republicans will be in a stronger position as we approach our next governing crisis: the debt ceiling deadline in early March.
There is a twin danger for the GOP, however. One is that they enter negotiations assuming the president is responsible and acting in good faith—and that a “good government” solution will be found and a grand bargain will be struck. That’s not going to happen. Mr. Obama is a dogmatist and a committed progressive. He has no interest in reining in spending or reforming entitlements. He wants to, in his words, “transform” America. And he has a burning desire to destroy the GOP.
The second danger facing Republicans is they once again engage in brinksmanship with the president—that they elevate the debt ceiling debate and (unwisely) threaten to allow the United States to default right up until the moment when they cave (which they would be forced to do).
My counsel to them would therefore be to take the threat of default off the table sooner rather than later. (One way to do this would be to pass legislation that increases the debt limit for, say, six months at a time.) Republicans should simultaneously put forward reasonable and realistic cuts to offset the increase in the debt limit, in the hope that they can secure some gains. Which leads me to my broader piece of advice.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s temper tantrum about the temporary delay of action on the Hurricane Sandy relief bill earlier this week was depicted in some corners as an illustration of the disconnect between the Northeast and the southern and western base of the Republican Party. There was some truth in that. The bulk of the GOP caucus in the House doesn’t care much about the concerns of Northeast Republicans let alone those of anyone else in the region. That’s just one of many concerns that the GOP must confront as it starts thinking about how to win back the White House in 2016. But despite the party’s failings, Christie’s rant illustrates that the lack of communication is a two-way street.
Like his embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie’s harangue about the failings of his party will play well in New Jersey. Indeed, the shift in recent months of the focus of the governor’s notoriously short temper from union bosses and liberals to right-wing Republicans—and the latter’s criticism of him—has been exactly what his re-election campaign needed. His approval ratings have reached the point where the most formidable Democrats in the state like Newark Mayor Cory Booker have abandoned the idea of running for governor. But if Christie is as serious about running for president in 2016 as many of his fans think he is, it’s time to realize that the conceit that he can be a moderate at home and a conservative in the rest of the country isn’t going to work.
Conservatives have spent the last week dissecting their failure in the presidential election. But one element of that defeat has been largely absent from the discussion: the candidate. That’s because in the last month of the presidential campaign something remarkable happened. Though he had previously been distrusted by much of the Republican base and widely regarded as a poor campaigner, Mitt Romney seemed to erase all of the doubts of his supporters. His strong performance in the first presidential debate gave the Republicans faith in their leader as well as momentum.
In retrospect, that last surge of optimism on the right about the 2012 election seems foolish. As we have already discussed in detail, the polls that showed Romney leading or at least even with Obama during this period were almost certainly wrong. Democratic turnout would, to my surprise, resemble that of the “hope and change” moment of 2008, while fewer people voted for Romney than John McCain. A number of factors were responsible for this: a failure to respond to the changing demography of the nation including the Hispanic vote, the GOP’s comically inept get-out-the-vote effort, media bias, Hurricane Sandy, and Romney’s inability to exploit the Benghazi fiasco. But yesterday we were reminded that although those explanations were valid, there was one other reason why Obama won: Mitt Romney.
For the past generation, Republicans have been able to argue with justice that their party is more consistently pro-Israel than that of the Democrats. That wasn’t just the result of President Obama’s antagonism toward Jerusalem and George W. Bush’s friendship. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that a significant portion of the influential left wing of the Democrats was hostile to the Jewish state, while those few Republicans who were not friends of Zion had been marginalized. While Pat Buchanan had been more or less kicked out of the GOP in the 1990s, left-wingers like the ones who booed the adoption of a platform plank on Jerusalem at the Democratic National Convention this year were numerous and not without a voice in the party’s councils. But that may be about to change.
Republicans are congratulating themselves on breaking the 30 percent mark in their share of the Jewish vote this year, even though they could point to Barack Obama’s problematic relationship with Israel. As I pointed out on Wednesday, anyone who assumes the GOP will continue to gain ground among Jewish voters needs to remember that they won’t have that advantage four years from now. But the really bad news is that the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party will make it clear that a significant portion of the GOP probably shouldn’t be characterized as part of the pro-Israel consensus. With the retirement of Rep. Ron Paul from electoral politics, the baton of the libertarian extremist/isolationist camp will pass to his son Rand, the senator from Kentucky. The younger Paul is more politically astute and probably a lot more marketable to a mainstream audience than his father was. But he is no less opposed to a mindset that sees a strong America and a strong alliance with Israel as integral to U.S. foreign policy than the older libertarian. That makes it entirely possible that under Rand’s leadership, radical libertarians will move from the fever swamps of the GOP to the mainstream. That’s bad news for the Republican Party, and could make their efforts to attract more pro-Israel and Jewish voters even more futile than they have been in the past.