“Republican Rebranding”: Recent History Tells Us That Victory Isn’t Born Of Subtle Ideological Repositioning
The Republican “rebranding” effort may be on temporary hiatus as all the party’s factions come together in the vain hope that they may finally have something to impeach Barack Obama over, but as soon as these various non-scandals, faux-scandals, and mini-scandals fade, the GOP will surely get back to bickering over how it can pull itself out of its electoral doldrums. In wondering where they might go, The Atlantic‘s Molly Ball does the logical thing and seeks out some veterans of a prior party rebranding, the Democratic effort of the late 1980s and early 1990s, centered around the Democratic Leadership Council. Their take isn’t too surprising—they think what the GOP needs now is to do what they did then. But I think there’s an important point missing from this discussion and the way we talk about this history. The story everyone tells is that there are two paths to take, one of which leads to failure and one to success, and the argument is over which is which. Should the party be more true to its philosophy and sell that philosophy better, or should it reorient itself to respond to changing times? Here’s how Ball’s article closes:
Watching the GOP’s struggles, former DLCers say they recognize all the old symptoms—the alibis, the search for a procedural panacea, the party committee dominated by diehards. But on the question of whether the Republican Party has just been through its version of 1988, they’re not so sure. As Will Marshall put it: “They know they have a political problem—that’s obvious. But I don’t think they’ve come to grips with the fundamental issue, which is their governing philosophy. I think they’re going to have to lose one more.”
Sounds reasonable enough. But I think the degree to which political success comes from the public agreeing with you on issues is being dramatically overstated. If you look at the ups and downs of the parties over the last 20 years, a couple of other factors—timing, and what your opponents do—matter a whole lot more.
Let’s quickly run over this history, starting with the Democrats’ first revival, with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Was it important that Clinton was a centrist Democrat who sought to neutralize the party’s electoral problems on being seen by white voters as too solicitous of black people and too soft on crime?1 Sure. But had the country not been in a recession in 1992, that wouldn’t have been enough. And if that was a Democratic revival that went beyond one guy getting elected, it didn’t last very long; two years later, Republicans took over both houses of Congress.
That brings us to the opposition factor. After the Gingrich Revolution, voters got to see the new version of the Republican party, and they were completely turned off. In 1996, Clinton ran one ad after another featuring pictures of Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich together to taint Dole with the stain of the unpopular House Speaker. But what got him re-elected, more than anything else, was the humming economy. We could argue about how much credit he deserved for it, but the importance it had was undeniable, and it wasn’t a judgment voters were making about his New Democrat philosophy that got him a second term.
Then four years later, despite all that New Democrat repositioning, George W. Bush gets elected and the Democratic Party is back in the toilet. And what brought them back? Was it yet another repositioning? Nope. It was George W. Bush. The abysmal failure of his presidency was what allowed Democrats to win back both houses of Congress in 2006. Then in 2008, Barack Obama got elected because of both a continued rejection of Bush and the economic meltdown.
My point is, all of this back-and-forth happened despite any ideological movement that was going on within each party. Right now the Republicans are indeed grossly out of step with the public on issues. But they were just as out of step in 2010, when they won a huge victory in the midterm elections. It isn’t that issues don’t matter, but a lot of the ideological judgments voters make are relative. The Democratic party is benefiting from the fact that Republicans look like (and are!) a bunch of reckless, irresponsible extremists. Could they benefit from becoming more sane? Sure. But given the right circumstances, they can win even if they get no less crazy than they are right now. If you’re in the opposition and the president’s policies fail, you’ll be rewarded; if they succeed, you’ll be in trouble (which, of course, is why Republicans have worked so hard to make sure Obama’s policies fail). Nobody is going to be hailed as a brilliant party strategist for saying, “We just need to wait for things to turn in our favor, and everything will be OK.” But that’s probably the truth.
1If you’re too young to remember the 1992 campaign, Google “Ricky Ray Rector” and “Sister Souljah” to see what I’m talking about.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 24, 2013
One of the main features of the Affordable Care Act is the creation of 50 state-based health-insurance exchanges, online marketplaces where people and small businesses will be able to easily compare competing plans and select the one they prefer. If you’re buying insurance on the individual market after the beginning of 2014 (but not if you get your insurance through your employer like most people), your state’s exchange is where you’ll go. While the federal government establishes a baseline of requirements for what plans offered through the exchange must contain, each state will determine exactly how theirs will work.
But after the ACA was passed, and especially after the 2010 election where Republicans won huge gains at the state level, a lot of states run by Republicans refused to take any action to create their exchanges. Like a Catholic bishop looking at a package of birth-control pills, they retched and turned away, not wanting to sully their hands at all with involvement in President Obama’s freedom-destroying health-care plan. But the law also provides that if a state doesn’t get around to creating its exchange, then the federal government will just do it for them.
Which is why I’ve always found the actions of Republicans on this issue puzzling. They all say they hate the federal government, and states can do things better. But in this case, they’re letting the federal government take over. Which is probably a good thing.
Let’s say you live in Arkansas. Who would you trust to create an exchange that works well and empowers consumers: a state government run by Republicans who think any government involvement in health care is vile, or the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services, which has a huge reputational stake in making the Affordable Care Act work as well as possible? Well, you’re in luck, because Arkansas has explicitly refused to create an exchange. Plenty of other states with Republican-controlled legislatures have simply dragged their feet in the hopes that either the Supreme Court will strike down the ACA when it hears the case later this year, or that a Republican will win the White House in November and successfully repeal the law (this is a list of where exchanges stand in each state, if you’re curious).
Conservative health-care wonks seem to be divided on the issue. Here’s one (h/t Sarah Kliff) making exactly the case that I made—if Republicans just ignore this, it’ll be turned over to an administration they hate (I just happen to think that’s a good thing, while he doesn’t). But here’s another testifying before the New Hampshire Legislature, telling them not to do anything and hope it just goes away.
This offers a reminder, in case you needed one, that elected officials are not always rational actors. They’ll even do things that undermine the principles they hold, for reasons of emotion or pique or false hope. In this case, that means a lot of people living in Republican-dominated states will probably have access to an exchange that works substantially better than whatever their state would have set up. So it’ll be a happy ending!
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, March 14, 2012
During his long career as the most famous talk radio host in modern history, Rush Limbaugh has only rarely apologized for his rhetoric — so when he does, it’s worth pondering the contrition’s deeper meaning. Was his apology last week for calling a Georgetown student a “slut” just a shrewd move to undercut a potential defamation lawsuit? Was it a frightened response to an intensifying backlash from advertisers? Does it prove the power of the liberal political organizations that have an ideological ax to grind against Limbaugh?
The answer to all those queries is yes — but none of those factors is the genuine news of the matter. Instead, what makes Limbaugh’s apology so important is its context. Capping off other similar brouhahas from across the mediasphere, Limbaugh’s mea culpa — however insincere — is significant because it is proof that America may be both setting some basic standards for political discourse and rejecting the right-wing shrieks about “censorship” and “political correctness.”
Consider what preceded Limbaugh’s apology. Only a few weeks ago, MSNBC announced it had terminated its relationship with Pat Buchanan, who had become a television mainstay despite the Anti-Defamation League documenting his long record as an “unrepentant bigot.” Just prior to that, Los Angeles radio station KFI suspended two hosts for calling Whitney Houston a “crack ho”; CNN suspended commentator Roland Martin for his homophobic Super Bowl tweets; and MSNBC suspended liberal host Ed Schultz for calling a competitor a “right-wing slut.” And before that, there was the seminal big-bang moment that kicked off the whole trend: the removal of Glenn Beck from Fox News — a decision that traced its roots to an advertiser boycott after Beck insisted that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred of white people.”
In all of these examples, as with Limbaugh’s “slut” comment, the speech in question set off a firestorm not just because it was ideologically extreme, but also because it was indisputably inappropriate. To paraphrase the jurisprudential terms surrounding pornography, it crossed the line from merely offensive to overtly obscene.
Of course, this kind of slander was tolerated for decades without so much as a peep of objection from the media powers that be. Thanks to that silence, talk radio and cable television came to be wholly defined by such political obscenity — a development that made spectacularly lucrative careers for hate-speech demagogues.
That downward spiral seemed destined to continue because any time there was even a hint of protest, the conservative movement’s powerful media intimidation machine trotted out self-righteous rants against “political correctness” and odes to the First Amendment. Looking to manufacture its own insipid version of “political correctness” that crushes dissent, this machine typically portrayed conservatives as victims, marshaling anti-censorship arguments to insinuate that bigotry, anti-Semitism, homophobia and sexism are somehow entitled to a constitutionally protected place in major media outlets.
Not surprisingly, this same argument is now being made by conservatives in defense of their disgraced heroes.
“He has every right to his ideas, as we all have the right to our own,” wrote conservative Cal Thomas in an emblematic screed criticizing MSNBC for firing Buchanan. “It’s called free speech.”
It’s certainly true that all Americans have a right to their own ideas and to advocate for those opinions on their own. But having one’s ideas broadcast to millions of Americans over the public airwaves by major media corporations is not a right. It’s a privilege.
Limbaugh’s apology, made under pressure and designed to safeguard his privilege, concedes that indisputable truth. In doing so, the talk-radio icon is implicitly acknowledging a welcome change — one in which media executives, advertisers and the larger American audience are finally declaring that privileges can be withdrawn from those who violate the most basic standards of decorum.
By: David Sirota, Salon, March 9, 2012
Asked to explain his support for Rick Santorum in Michigan’s primary, voter Sandy Munro said, “Now what we need is a strong political leader to do something to get us out of the moral slump that we’re in.”
Mr Santorum would agree, having noted that “Satan has his sights on the United States of America.” As would Mitt Romney, who has attacked the decay caused by Barack Obama’s “secular agenda”. Newt Gingrich has gone the furthest, stating, “A country that has been now since 1963 relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have.”
But what are these problems? When considering America’s moral decline, my first instinct was to look at the crime rate. If Satan is at work in America, he’s probably nicking wallets and assaulting old ladies. But over the past several decades the crime rate has fallen dramatically, despite what you may think. The homicide rate has been cut in half since 1991; violent crime and property crime are also way down. Even those pesky kids are committing less crime. There are some caveats to these statistics, as my colleague points out, but I think we can conclude that crime is not the cause of America’s moral decline.
So let’s look elsewhere. Abortion has returned as a hot-button issue, perhaps it is eating away at our moral fiber. Hmm, the abortion rate declined by 8% between 2000 and 2008. Increases in divorce and infidelity could be considered indicators of our moral decay. There’s just one problem: according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the divorce rate is the lowest it has been since the early 1970s. This is in part due to the recession, but infidelity is down too.
Other areas that might indicate declining virtue are also going against the perceived trend. For example, charitable giving is up after a decline during the recession. The teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest level in 40 years. And according to Education Week, “the nation’s graduation rate stands at 72 percent, the highest level of high school completion in more than two decades.” So where is the evidence of this moral decline?
Here’s one for the declinists: the number of Americans not affiliated with any religion has increased, while the number of those attending worship services has declined. And here’s another: out-of-wedlock births have increased in America so that now at least four in ten children are born to unmarried women. This is something Mr Santorum has focused on during the campaign, and he is right in pointing out that the children of unwed mothers in America tend to do worse in terms of health, schooling and income later in life.
But here’s where the real debate over America’s moral position comes into focus. As the New York Times notes, out-of-wedlock births are increasing in much of the developed world—for example, over half of babies in Iceland and Sweden are born to unwed mothers. But according to Wendy Manning, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, “In Sweden, you see very little variation in the outcome of children based on marital status. Everybody does fairly well… In the US, there’s much more disparity.”
So out-of-wedlock birth need not correspond to worse outcomes for children. And if it didn’t in America, should we still consider out-of-wedlock births a moral problem? One could ask a similar question about religion. While rates of religious participation may be declining in America, young people today have similar moral beliefs as their parents and grandparents. So is the decline in religious observance a moral problem?
When it comes to out-of-wedlock births, the issue is complicated because discouraging these types of the births may be a more efficient way of securing children than the type of nanny-state intervention that can be found in a country like Sweden. But in general, I think the debate over America’s moral position comes down to this: Republicans want the best outcomes based on solutions that fit into preconceived notions of what society should look like. So even if there are few tangible harms that point to our moral decay, any move away from their vision of society is evidence of declining virtue. Democrats, on the other hand, are more concerned with outcomes, even if that means upending the way things were (or accepting that they have been upended and cannot be restored).
So in the case of out-of-wedlock births, Republicans would probably see the increase as a moral problem regardless of the outcome. Whereas Democrats might feel more comfortable with, say, promoting a corresponding increase in stable familial relationships outside of marriage. It is a dynamic we’ve seen elsewhere recently, in regard to issues like gay marriage and contraception. And it leads to a debate over what “moral” really means. If “immoral” means “causing avoidable harm to other people” then gay marriage, pornography, sex, reality TV, soft-drug use and euthanasia are hardly immoral, even if distasteful to some.
But as we grind through the Republican primary process, it seems like the debate over morality in America has less to do with moral outcomes and more to do with a vision of how society should look based on idealistic remembrances of how things were. So people like Mr Munro and the Republican candidates believe America is in a moral slump. The odd thing is, people on the left might actually agree, though for very different reasons. They are upset by the perceived greed of the 1%, and the broad acceptance of torture and war as foreign-policy tools. In the end, the debate over morality more closely resembles two distinct monologues.
By: Democracy in America Blog, The Economist, March 2, 2012
Perhaps my biggest frustration with the U.S. news media (and yes, I am a card-carrying member) is that we permit the two parties to decide what is “left” and what is “right.” The way it works, roughly, is that anything Democrats support becomes “left,” and everything Republicans support becomes “right.” But that makes “left” and “right” descriptions of where the two parties stand at any given moment rather than descriptions of the philosophies, ideologies or ideas that animate, or should animate, political debates.
There is a good reason why we do it this way. It isn’t the media’s job to police political ideologies, and it wouldn’t be a good idea for us to try. But that leaves ordinary voters in a bit of a tough spot.
The reality is that most Americans aren’t policy wonks. They don’t sit down with think-tank papers or economic studies and puzzle over whether it’s better to address the free-rider problem in health care through automatic enrollment or the individual mandate. Instead, they outsource those questions to the political actors — both elected and unelected — they trust.
Unfortunately, those political actors aren’t worthy of their trust. They’re trying to win elections, not points for intellectual consistency. So the voters who trust them get taken for a ride.
Consider the partywide flips and flops of just the past few years:
— Supporting a temporary, deficit-financed payroll-tax cut as a stimulus measure in 2009, as Republican Sen. John McCain and every one of his colleagues did, put you on the right. Supporting a temporary, deficit-financed payroll tax-cut in late 2011 put you on the left. Supporting it in early 2012 could have put you on either side.
— Supporting an individual mandate as a way to solve the health-care system’s free-rider problem between 1991 and 2007 put you on the right. Doing so after 2010 put you on the left.
— Supporting a system in which total carbon emissions would be capped and permits traded as a way of moving toward clean energy using the power of market pricing could have put you on either the left or right between 2000 and 2008. After 2009, it put you squarely on the left.
— Caring about short-term deficits between 2001 and 2008 put you on the left. Caring about them between 2008 and 2012 put you on the right.
— Favoring an expansive view of executive authority between 2001 and 2008 put you on the right. Doing so since 2009 has, in most cases, put you on the left.
— Supporting large cuts to Medicare in the context of universal health-care reform puts you on the left, as every Democrat who voted for the Affordable Care Act found out during the 2010 election. Supporting large cuts to Medicare in the context of deficit reduction puts you on the right, as Republicans found out in the 1990s, and then again after voting for Representative Paul Ryan’s proposed budget in 2011.
— Decrying the filibuster and considering drastic changes to the Senate rulebook to curb it between 2001 and 2008 put you on the right, particularly if you were exercised over judicial nominations. Since 2009, decrying the filibuster and considering reforms to curb it has put you on the left.
— Favoring a negative tax rate for the poorest Americans between 2001 and 2008 could have put you on the right or the left. In recent years, it has put you on the left.
I don’t particularly mind flip-flops. Consistency is an overrated virtue. But honesty isn’t. In many of these cases, the parties changed policy when it was politically convenient to do so, not when conditions changed and new information came to light.
There are exceptions, of course. It’s reasonable to worry about short-term deficits during an economic expansion and consider them necessary during a recession. That’s Economics 101.
But nothing happened to explain the change from 2006, when the individual mandate was a Republican policy in good standing, to 2010, when every Senate Republican, including those who still had their names on bills that included individual mandates, agreed it was an unconstitutional assault on liberty. Nothing, that is, but the Democrats’ adopting the policy in their health-care reform bill.
Flips and flops like these make the labels “left” and “right” meaningless as a descriptor of anything save partisanship over any extended period of time. I could tell you about a politician who supported deficit-financed stimulus policies and cap-and-trade, and I could be describing McCain. Or Newt Gingrich. And I could tell you about another politician who opposed an individual mandate, and who fought deficits, expansive views of executive authority and efforts to reform the filibuster, and be describing Sen. Barack Obama.
Parties — particularly when they’re in the minority — care more about power than policy. Perhaps there’s nothing much to be done about this. And as I said, it isn’t clear that the media, or anyone else, should try. But it puts the lie to the narrative that America is really riven by grand ideological disagreements. America is deeply divided on the question of which party should be in power at any given moment. Much of the polarization over policy is driven by that question, not the other way around.
But the voters who trust the parties don’t know that, and they tend to take on faith the idea that their representatives are fighting for some relatively consistent agenda. They’re wrong.
By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, February 24, 2012