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The Raucous Caucus

November 14, 2012

A Republican move to the political center will have costs. That isn’t automatically bad.

You may not like Jeb Bush, but you need to know that he is a reasonable man. Speaking to investors the afternoon following Mitt Romney concession of defeat in the Presidential election, Governor Bush took a pragmatic line; his questioners, many of them angry Republican voters, often came across as less reasoned in response. And in this debate lies the challenge for the modern Republican party: how to string together a diaspora of radical and centrist voices under a single banner, without selling out the core to acquire the margin.

To understand the Republican position, and it’s timing, let’s look first at how it evolved, and then from there analyse how it might change going forward. The Republicans lost the election because they failed to convince enough American people that their candidates could be trusted. President Obama was beatable in the closing stages of the race, had the party moved earlier to claim the middle ground. The decision to tack to the right in the early phase didn’t win many swing votes, and when the campaign moved back to the center, it was too late. The decision to put Clint Eastwood on the stage at the convention might have sounded great in a planning session but fell spectacularly flat; reinforcing as it did the impression of an out of touch party haunted by the ghost of Ronald Reagan, an image and spin problem subsequently compounded by Hurricane Sandra.

The reason the Republican machine focused on the Right early in the campaign speaks to the elusive nature of Republican unity, and the Party leadership’s fear of fragmentation. Republicans are trying to unify an intellectually and economically diverse group, many of whom do not naturally agree with each other. The small businessman, struggling to keep a business going in the teeth of a bitter recession, is not interested in taxes and coolness; she wants growth, less tax, and less government. The Evangelical voter places a greater emphasis on conservative social policy, buttressed by verbal attacks on the separation of Church and State. A religious fundamentalist of one persuasion might require suasion to trust in fellow Republicans of different faiths. A blue collar worker, experiencing negative elasticity in wage growth, might respond to anti immigrant rhetoric that would cause other supporters to pale. And from this raucous caucus, the Republicans had to craft a unifying policy that might win Middle America. It is a credit to them that they nearly succeeded.

But they didn’t; instead, they were comprehensively defeated in both the popular vote for the Presidency, and in several key Senate races. An incumbent running on the weakest economic track record in modern memory cruised to an easy win over the party of “Can do, America!” Voters rejected Republican Senate candidates, increasing the Democrat’s margin of safety. Republican policymakers now face the challenge finding a credible recipe to keep the faithful happy, while granting them a more credible foundation going forward.They need to do this over the next 100 days or so.

So here are some suggestions for how to do that.

1. Abandon the Lunatics, because they will keep voting for you anyway – When your party runs not one, but in fact two candidates that demonstrate ignorance of high school biology, you need to reassess who is getting selected. Middle America is a tough judge, and will not support a party that promotes ideologues. The Republican congressional candidate(s) who felt obliged to offer their profound insight into the already tortured abortion debate with indefensible nescience about post rape fertility damaged Romney’s campaign by association. The simple fact is this: Republican voters who believe that Dinosaurs roamed the earth as recently as two hundred years ago are unlikely to vote for anyone other than the Republicans regardless of what the party does or says to or about them, so the party can be cynical and cease to grant these people airtime. When you associate or promote idiots (we use the term in its technical definition), people cannot tell the difference; reducing your appeal to the moderate voter.

2. Dump the “God, Gays and Guns” axiom. This does not mean abandoning evangelicals; it just means reducing their exposure, therefore neutering their heir presumptive to the party’s moral authority. What Republican policymakers need to grasp is that voters believe that the United States is about the government not impeding an individual’s right to happiness – and choosing who you sleep with on a consensual basis is not a decision for Federal consultation. Evangelicals absolutely do not understand that their moral choices, however personally uplifting, will never convince everybody. But no worries; as with the lunatics, they will keep taking the Elephant over the donkey. The GOP can actually achieve this pretty easily with limited fanfare by just not opposing legislation to allow everyone to enjoy matrimonial terror, regardless of gender preference.

3. Get excited about immigration. Immigration made the country. There is nothing more absurd than watching some third generation blowhard talking about how bad immigration is. To the international viewer, where domestic feuds go back quite a bit further (European football is exciting for this very reason) this is patently absurd. Much better is to go back to the old Republican ideal of making everyone brilliant American. This involves welcoming lots of potentially serious earners into the country, at the expense of some angry people at the fringe.

4. Get constructive about working for a better country. One of Jeb Bush’s comments on the investor call was that ‘Republicans and Democrats need to work together, and Republican voters need to respect their representatives for doing that’, or words to that effect. That is smart. Ultimately, what voters want is better government, and if you are blocking policy process, changes are that you are not leading; you are simply misleading. What you need to do is engage in process to deliver better legislation. What voters rejected for the Senate was the polarisation of the country; what they now want is leadership.

Taken together, the journey into the center could easily result in gains in the coming Midterms, since distancing the party from extremists who dominate the debate will not actually lose any votes. But this requires courage, of which Politicians like to talk, but rarely actually posses.

We wonder if Jeb has those guts; impressed as we were by the logic and the calm of the man. But then, for him it was just the first day of the race. A dominant theme of the second term will be about legacy and replacement. While that game has just begun, we think it could prove to dominate the second half of Obama’s term.

One Comment
  1. Those are smart suggestions!

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