Commentary Magazine

Republican Recovery

To the Editor:

If one starts off with flawed—or totally wrong—premises, it’s unlikely one will end up with the correct conclusions. Sadly (for Republicans, anyway), that’s exactly what Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner do in their essay “How to Save the Republican Party” [March].

The authors argue that Republicans are not beholden to “millionaires and billionaires” who are “out of touch with ordinary Americans” or “engaged in class warfare on behalf of the upper class.” Yet we have Republicans lavishing welfare on powerful corporations while opposing a small increase in the (pathetically low) minimum wage. We have Republicans dividing America into a nation of “makers” and “takers,” in which those who receive Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, individual welfare (note: corporate welfare is just fine), food stamps, etc., are “takers,” while everyone else, à la Ayn Rand, are the put-upon “makers.”

It’s also ironic to read two establishment Republicans using language that, if used by a Democrat, would be considered “Communism.” Gerson and Wehner wax rhapsodic about the benefits of the “common good,” “community or social solidarity,” “the obligations and attachments we have to each other,” and “the Catholic doctrines of subsidiarity and solidarity with the poor”—exactly what Barack Obama and the Democratic Party already stand for.

Messrs. Gerson and Wehner argue that “the GOP can engage vital social issues forthrightly but in a manner that is aspirational rather than alienating.” What does that mean, specifically? Are Republicans going to stop trying to shut down abortion clinics, stop forcing women to have invasive ultrasound procedures, stop waging war against contraception and Planned Parenthood, stop voting against laws to provide equal protection for LGBT citizens, stop opposing no-brainer bills such as the Violence Against Women Act? It’s not Republicans’ “manner” but their substance that’s all wrong. As long as the GOP is beholden to the religious (far) right, none of this is going to change.

Finally, while I agree with the authors that “Republicans need to harness their policy views to the findings of science,” there are a few big obstacles to overcome before they do so. On climate, for instance, if Republicans were to accept what 97 percent of climate scientists know—that human emissions of greenhouse gases are rapidly changing the climate—then they’d have to support the rejection of carbon-based fuels. Yet the GOP is largely funded and controlled by those very fossil-fuel interests, and the last thing the Koch brothers or ExxonMobil want to see is a rapid transition to a clean-energy economy. How do the authors propose to get around this problem?

Even when leading Republicans like Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner take a stab at thinking through a reboot of the Republican Party, they fail because they can’t manage to look at things objectively, clearly, and with courage. The Republican Party needs to return to its roots as a serious, right-of-center party. It must reject the Pat Robertson right, become a secular party that “believes” in science again, and stop trying to take America “back” to a time when wealthy white men had all the power. Until then, the GOP will remain lost in the political wilderness, increasingly out of touch with a population that doesn’t think like them anymore.

John Brown
Knoxville, Tennessee


To the Editor:

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner’s article fails to mention that the problem with the national Republican Party is that it refuses to govern. Republican state governors don’t have this aversion to governing. They work with their legislative bodies and get things done. William F. Buckley kicked all the “wacko birds” out of the Republican Party. They were called Birchers back then. Someone let them back in.

The Republicans turned the health-care debate into a joke. I believe everyone on government health-care must have an end-of-life directive and a doctor should get paid for helping someone write one. Republicans dismissed this as “death panels.” I have private insurance; don’t you think I have some bureaucrat deciding what procedures I am allowed to have?

The Republicans should have let the Bush tax cuts expire and had a real discussion about Social Security and Medicare. Instead, they used the so-called fiscal cliff as a campaign issue. I thought they should have compromised in 2011. The Republicans held the trump cards, but they did not want to give the president any “victory” before the upcoming election.

Additionally, the Republican primary brought out the worst in the party. Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum—these men are not national leaders. In the end, the Republicans were stuck with Romney. “Anybody but Obama” is not a campaign theme.

Conservative values can be populist values. Republicans’ self-interest hinders them with voters. Conservatism is about fairness. If Republicans can find a policy program that speaks to that fairness—for example, getting rid of the special tax treatment for capital gains and other sops to the party’s wealthy benefactors—they will win again.

Roderick F. Hines
Vienna, Virginia


To the Editor:

In their essay, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner do an excellent job of recounting past political misadventures and successes, but they neglect to address a key factor for GOP election victories down the road: a recognition of the importance of reproductive freedom for women in society. The Republican Party’s capture by the religious right has cost its candidates time and again. President Obama won women’s votes by 11 percent over Governor Romney, and by an incredible 36 percent among single women.

The ability of a woman to control how and when she can have children is extremely important in today’s world, where she is often called upon to be the household breadwinner. Republicans purport to limit government involvement in people’s personal and professional lives, yet Republican officeholders at the federal and state level continue to support draconian measures restricting abortion rights and even contraception. This restrictive legislation runs counter to the so-called conservative values given lip service by Republican leaders. It is hypocrisy: calling for less government, yet supporting laws that violate the most basic of human and constitutional rights—reproductive choices.

As a lifelong Republican whose first vote was cast for Barry Goldwater for president, I am appalled at the influence the religious right has on Republican candidates and policies. Only when Republican leaders shed that influence will the party once again find its way. Both men and women are watching and will continue to vote accordingly.

Randall Moody
Lincoln, Nebraska


To the Editor:

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner neglect to discuss some of the more important issues on which the GOP has fallen behind in the last half century. They discuss certain specific changes needed in the party’s message but miss a lot about the fundamental beliefs that underlie the real weakness of the party.

Americans on the whole no longer believe what Republicans continue to believe about a number of critical issues. Unless Republicans alter their actual beliefs, communication improvements won’t help them. Indeed, the following words do not even occur in the article: civil rights, ecology, global warming, evolution, and guns. Abortion is mentioned once, in a description of George McGovern.

Actions by many elected Republicans demonstrate only too clearly that the GOP does not respect the rights of women or the rights of immigrants. By opposing the right of women to protect their bodies as they see fit, the GOP permanently establishes itself as patriarchal and hostile to women, imposing a father-knows-best interpretation of female matters.

Republicans also deny that the Earth is warming. Indeed, the GOP is considered so thoroughly aligned with fundamentalist Christianity as to be actively anti-science. And it does nothing on the state level to quell concerns others may have when they see the adoption of creationist-leaning science books in schools.
To deny evolution is to deny all of modern science, from geology to anthropology to medicine to physics. Why, for instance, do we need to spend money to deal with antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis if there is no evolution? What use is radioactive carbon dating if the world is only 10,000 years old?

What’s more, despite the fact that America is embroiled in a debate over the place of the Second Amendment and the ability of governments to control the proliferation of guns, Messrs. Gerson and Wehner completely avoid discussion of the issue. Their failure to even mention this reflects the denial of reality that haunts the GOP belief system. Newtown was a game changer. The gun issue is not going away even if the Republican-dominated House of Representatives defeats all variations of gun control bills sent to it this year. That short-term “victory” will be seen by the public as intransigence.
Unless the GOP can alter the fundamental presuppositions underlying their beliefs, I see no hope for the party. The world has moved on, and America has reluctantly moved on with it. The GOP is stuck in times past.

Francis Miniter
Kensington, Connecticut


To the Editor:

In Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner’s prescription for Republican renewal, what happened to national security? Surely it is of paramount importance, yet it receives just glancing mention in the first section. Why?

Anne Gardner
Bausman, Pennsylvania


To the Editor:

My sense is that the problem with the Republican Party’s fortunes is cultural rather than political. Over the past 50 years, traditional American values have become more and more discredited and marginalized by the academic, entertainment, arts, and media industries. Regardless of their politics, an increasing number of Americans have tuned out. Republicans cannot win in politics until they reclaim the culture—which I think has passed the tipping point, and (unfortunately) cannot be recovered.

Marc Posner
Rockville, Maryland


To the Editor:

I can sum up the piece by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner concisely: “In order for the Republican Party to save itself, Republicans will have to become more like Democrats.” This requires the things mentioned by the writers—healthy respect for science, rights of gay people, the middle class, and immigrants.

What the authors don’t say, though, is why this will increase the acceptability of the Republican Party. Voters who like these qualities already vote for Democrats.

Messrs. Gerson and Wehner also fail to address the character flaws of the rising Republicans mentioned. Even with a change of policy, voters will continue to be turned off by, for instance, the relentless dishonesty of Paul Ryan. Scott Walker has already done too much to prove his pro-corporate bias in public policy to shed this image.

I hope the Republicans take this advice and govern with these principles. Still, I will continue to vote Democrat.

Mark Reed
Los Angeles, California


To the Editor:

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner are correct when they note that the GOP certainly does have a “communications problem.” But speaking more loudly, more insistently, and with greater purity and passion won’t make up for a vital omission in the party’s message.

To succeed at selling the conservative political philosophy, every spokesperson needs to learn how to explain the features of that philosophy in terms of the benefits to the individual voter. For example: The GOP stands for economic growth, that is, for expanding the size of the American economic pie, which means to you that your own job will be more secure and your own wages can increase more rapidly. The GOP supports the Keystone XL Pipeline and the development of America’s own natural gas and oil resources, which means to you that you’ll pay less to heat or air-condition your home and also pay less at the gas pump.

One of the biggest mistakes of the Romney campaign was its over-emphasis on entrepreneurs at the Republican National Convention. It’s important to remember that although we all can come to an understanding of the blessings of liberty (and its corollaries, less government intrusion and coercion), not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. Hopefully, entrepreneurs will always find a home in the Republican Party, but now it’s time to talk seriously and respectfully to everyone else.

Mary Ann Lawlor
Stamford, Connecticut


To the Editor:

I don’t think any of the advice offered in Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner’s article will be effective until it can be put into action by inspiring political leaders. Ronald Reagan was inspiring; George W. Bush could be inspiring on some occasions. But the elder Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney simply were not. Inspire people, and you will win. Run more political hacks, and you probably will not.

Eric Gudorf
Edina, Minnesota


To the Editor:

I have served five Republican presidents, from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush, in various roles. What Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner say has much merit. The Republican Party of Ronald Reagan has lost its direction. Reagan once said of the Democratic Party that it left him, and now we have the Republicans on the street saying the same about the Republican Party.

While the country has changed, the Republican Party has not changed with it. We have become a party of exclusion, not inclusion. The Republican Party faces many internal battles and has become a party of self-interested rival factions. Many Republicans have a strong belief that the elected Republican leaders in Washington have sold them out.

The wasteful spending, failure to find good candidates, and inability to organize effectively at the grassroots level have taken their toll on the party’s fortunes. It’s time to clean house, and that begins with new leadership in Washington D.C.

Michael Karem
New Port Richey, Florida


To the Editor:

As a conservative Republican-turned-independent due to the GOP’s indifference to the increasing barriers to economic mobility in our country, I was heartened to read the article by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner. It is a good start.

The relevant question is whether our country can achieve the improvements in people’s lives that the authors speak of in their first suggestion—“focusing on the economic concerns of working- and middle-class Americans”—without employing the dreaded r solution: redistributing the country’s wealth from the top 10 percent downward.

I have become convinced that this is no longer possible and would have liked to read in the essay an acknowledgment of the need for cost-effective programs that help increase economic mobility and which don’t rule out government intervention. However, I know that for most of those who will probably read the article that would be a bridge too far. As it is, the article will spur a good deal of GOP soul-searching, which is sufficient in itself to render it worthy of conscientious consideration.

Lynne Monds
Santa Barbara, California


To the Editor:

I like to think of myself as an independent, but, to be honest, I have voted Democrat ever since 1992. If Republican candidates took the sound advice of Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner and embraced even some of these ideas (ending corporate welfare might be enough), I would consider voting for them.

The country is worse off for having a weak Republican Party. The only reason they still hold the House is because of gerrymandering. The Republican Party must stop thinking of city dwellers as somehow less important than the “real Americans” of rural areas. Stop having the first caucus in Iowa—unless you want to see a repeat of 2012. Stop thinking of compromise as a dirty word.

I’m starting to hear some of the GOP’s younger leaders talk the talk. But there has to be real change. I hope for the sake of our country that the offered vision of a new Republican Party will emerge from the rubble of the old.

Kerry Waughtal
Pleasant Hill, Iowa


To the Editor:

I am a center-left observer who would like to congratulate Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner on a thorough analysis of the problem and thank them for offering what are, to me, obvious solutions. It is imperative that we have two strong parties working on the problems that the American people are struggling with. Unfortunately, Republican politicians will never consider or implement the thoughtful analysis of Messrs. Gerson and Wehner because they would have to first acknowledge they bear responsibility for the present state of their party. Intellectual honesty is the first requirement of self-renewal.

Daniel Casciano
Little Rock, Arkansas


To the Editor:

In their superb essay, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner highlight the considerable challenges for Republicans. As the authors state, the current troubles are not simply the result of a communications problem. In some key areas, policy needs updating, too. The big question is how.

In the final section of their essay, Gerson and Wehner suggest that a British think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), could provide the answer for the GOP.The CSJ has been one of the most influential think tanks in the UK in the last decade. It was founded by the former leader of the Conservative Party (and current secretary of state for work and pensions) Iain Duncan Smith, following his 2002 visit to a deprived housing estate in Glasgow where he saw firsthand the damaging effects of poverty. Duncan Smith and the CSJ focused their work on overcoming the “pathways to poverty”: family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness, and addictions. What accounted for the CSJ’s success and what can the GOP learn?

First, all findings and recommendations from the CSJ are firmly rooted in evidence, including the use of thorough public polling. The 2007 report Breakthrough Britain, for example, included two waves of polling, which collected the opinions of almost 50,000 people. In an era of pontificating and punditry when evidence can be relegated below opinion, this approach is powerful.

Second, the CSJ is a superb example of how politicians and policymakers can make the most of their time in opposition. The result is that once the Conservatives were back in government, crucial reforms were pre-packaged and ready to go. This gave the party a huge head start on the current welfare reforms that are being introduced in the UK (led by Duncan-Smith).

Third, the CSJ is a conservative organization with conservative beliefs and principles. However, it has never been bound by partisanship or tribalism. When the Labour Party was in government, the CSJ was actively engaged in working together with Labour MPs to see their policies implemented. Perhaps the best example of this approach is seen in the 2008 report Early Intervention, co-written with Labour MP Graham Allen. This report led to all of the main party leaders’ signing up to the new social policy of “Early Intervention.” This willingness to reach across the aisle has given the CSJ a coalition of supporters from different political spheres.

If it is to change in any meaningful way, the Republican Party must resist the temptation to do what many political parties do following defeat: repeat more loudly the same failed policies under the assumption that the people simply didn’t hear the message the first time around.

The Washington D.C. think tank scene is highly competitive. If, however, there is space for one more, modelling it on the Centre for Social Justice would be an excellent starting point. And the good news is that work has already begun at state level. The Georgia Center for Opportunity seems to be following the CSJ model. Perhaps it will be only a matter of time before we see this scaled up to the national level.

Nathan Gamester
Legatum Institute, London


Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner write:

In his response to our essay, John Brown would rather debate cartoonish caricatures than real Republicans. Fortunately, the future of the Republican Party will be shaped by Republicans, not those who have antipathy for them.

We’re sympathetic to some of the concerns raised by Roderick F. Hines, but we disagree with him on one point: Republicans have not turned the health-care debate into a “joke.” By virtually every measure, they are winning that debate in the court of public opinion. The Affordable Care Act is quite unpopular—and we suspect next year it will become even more unpopular. It may in fact end up being a political millstone around the neck of Democrats in 2014 and beyond.

Randall Moody believes the GOP needs to recognize “the importance of reproductive freedom for women in society” and castigates Republicans for supporting pro-life pieces of legislation that “violate the most basic of human and constitutional rights—reproductive choices.” Except there is no constitutional right to abortion; it is an invention. As for human rights: We consider laws to protect unborn children to be a step in that direction. We can’t help but mention that the murder trial of the abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, which brought to light the gruesome nature of the abortion industry, has just concluded. Some may consider those who champion abortion at any point for any reason to be advancing the interests of women and children; we do not. And as a political matter, there’s no evidence that being pro-life has hurt the Republican Party in presidential elections; the country has become more, not less, pro-life since the 1990s.

Francis Miniter, like Mr. Moody, believes in abortion rights—and we believe she’s wrong for the same reasons he is. She believes in evolution, as we do. But that issue has little salience in elections. As for her claim that we don’t mention global warming, Ms. Miniter may want to re-read the essay, where we speak several times about climate disruption. And while Ms. Miniter argues that the massacre at Newtown was a “game changer,” public-opinion polls and Congress—including red-state Democratic senators—seem to disagree. We say that as individuals who are sympathetic to expanded background checks.

Anne Gardner asks why we devoted so little space to national security. A fair question. The answer is that we devoted a section on national security in a previous essay for COMMENTARY [“The Path to Republican Revival,” September 2009], and our views remain the same. We decided to focus our attention exclusively on domestic and economic matters this time around, since there is plenty to do on those fronts. But national-security issues are important—and they may become more politically significant in the years ahead, as the threats to America increase.

Marc Posner is right to highlight the importance of culture; he’s wrong to believe we’ve reached a tipping point and find ourselves beyond recovery. America is a strong, resilient nation with an amazing capacity for self-renewal. The progress we’ve seen since the mid-1990s on issues such as welfare, crime, drug use, abortion, divorce, and education scores shows that the right policies can make a difference, and attitudes toward seemingly intractable problems can shift for the better.

Religious conservatives are largely responsible for keeping the GOP pro-life, which we believe is to their credit. If the Republican Party were to abandon its pro-life stance, it would be a political disaster, as well as a moral abdication.

Mark Reed summarizes our essay by saying we believe Republicans should become more like Democrats. That strikes us as a rather shallow interpretation. For one thing, we are quite critical of President Obama and quite forthright about the damage he’s doing to America. It is, in fact, precisely because of the pernicious effects of liberalism that we believe it is vital that Republicans begin to once again win presidential elections. Nor do we believe that the agenda we laid out—appealing to middle-class, blue-collar voters, and rising immigrant groups; speaking out about the importance of community and social solidarity; engaging vital social issues forthrightly but in a manner that is aspirational rather than alienating; and respecting the findings of science—is in any way contra-conservative. Our view is that Republicans should embrace an agenda that is wise and that works.

We agree with Mary Ann Lawlor; as we put it in our essay, the danger for the GOP is that they come across as hyper-individualistic. This need not be so.

We also agree with Eric Gudorf that the quality of candidates matters. But we disagree with his characterization of Messrs. George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney as “political hacks.” They are impressive men who did not possess the political skills of their opponents. And there’s no question that hurt them.
Michael Karem believes the GOP has not changed enough to win in the second decade of the 21st century. We agree; that is, in fact, one of the premises of our essay. We’re perhaps more sympathetic than he is to the leadership being provided by, for example, Speaker of the House John Boehner and other key congressional Republicans. But there’s no question the GOP would do well to produce a nominee in 2016 who possesses unusual political gifts, since his or her task will not simply be to win the nomination but also, in the process, recalibrate the party.

Lynne Monds believes in the importance of upward mobility; so do we. She believes greater wealth redistribution is the means to achieve that end; we respectfully don’t see things that way. We believe the focus of the GOP should be on encouraging the creation of what social scientists call “social capital” and promoting economic growth. Greater wealth redistribution would hurt the latter and do little for the former. We concur with Kerry Waughtal that the country needs a strong Republican Party. That was, in fact, the reason we wrote the essay in the first place. We appreciate Daniel Casciano’s kind words, although we are more confident than he is that the leadership of the Republican Party is open to the kind of suggestions we offer. Time will tell. And we thank Nathan Gamester for his insightful letter on the Centre for Social Justice. We’re great admirers of the CSJ, and we believe there is much the Republican Party can learn from it.

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