Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Republican Schism: It's About Time

It would be very easy to read this post as just another rant by a blue-state blogger who can't wait to get the GOP out of the White House. That's not true; what I can't wait for is to get George W. Bush out of the White House, because of how he has wrecked the Grand Old Party, the core values of which remain the best answer for America and its relationship to the world, and which he has largely ignored for eight years. I can't understand why one of the greatest GOP Senators of the late twentieth century would distort his positions and use the same campaign tactics that tainted the GOP under Bush. If you're a real conservative - if your values are those of Reagan or TR - then I can't understand why you wouldn't feel the same way. And I can't understand why, like many other conservatives, you wouldn't also voted for Barack Obama. A political party is a voluntary association of people with similar ideas about how a government should run - that's all. And if your love of a party trumps your love of the United States, then you have a problem.

I wrote before about how, in the month before the election, with politically-ambitious pseudo-evangelicals' grip slipping on the GOP and the American heartland, there were finally the first stirrings of a genuine split in the GOP that Bruce Bartlett had predicted prematurely in 2004. In the end, waking up in October was too little, too late. But I submit that nothing has been better to shock the GOP back to its core values than this solid drubbing, in the White House and in the Capitol. Volunteers in depressed hotel ballrooms around the country said this repeatedly to reporters last night.

The GOP has endured and even grown stronger from fractures before. First and less known is the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds in the decades following the Civil War; this was largely isolated from rank-and-file Republicans since it the split was an issue of career politicians, who fought over whether to maintain the Republican political machinery that dominated US politics. And the GOP survived it stronger than ever, united by Chester Alan Arthur. Better known is Teddy Roosevelt's defection when he formed a whole separate party in 1912; his former protege William Taft was dismantling much of the progressive agenda that TR had fought for in the White House, including (especially) preservation of public land and labor reform. The Democrat (Woodrow Wilson) won, but the incumbent Republican received only 8 electoral votes to TR's 88. That's far beyond a "spoiler" and quite impressive for an ad-hoc third party like the Bull Moose Progressives. And what do you think the factions might be in 2008?

There have always been cynical fundamentalists in American politics, some probably sincere in their beliefs and some surely not, who divided their loyalty between the Constitution (when it was convenient) and their own extremist interpretations of Scripture - and their apparent desire to view the Constitution as just another book of the New Testament (sorry, I'm an American; to me our Constitution is much, much more important than that). Before World War II these characters were at least as often Democrats as Republicans; it's underappreciated that William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted John Scopes in 1925 for daring to teach evolution in school, argued that evolution was clearly evil because it encouraged capitalism. And Bryant even ran 3 times as a Democrat for President. This seems strange to us today because Bryan's political descendants shifted allegiance in the 1960s until finally we got a GOP with three wings: the business people, the patriots and military, and the faithful (market, country and God) until today we have smooth operators like Ralph Reed, Bob Dobson, and Pat Robertson (who literally cursed a town in my home state after the Dover School Board ruling - no, he doesn't have a political agenda at all. Yes, it would be funny if millions of people didn't hang on his every word and threaten America's technical competitiveness by damaging our educational system).

Party fault lines often show themselves in the primaries - I first paid attention to this when in the 1996 primary it came down to Forbes, Dole and Buchanan. In the 2008 general election you can see it in a blue Virgina, and a blue New Mexico, and even a North Carolina evenly split, thanks to younger Republicans who, religious or otherwise, weren't so thrilled about candidates making godlessness a campaign issue.

As it happened, in 1920 the GOP took back the White House in the form of the Warren G. Harding, replaced after his death by the taciturn Calvin Coolidge. Although Coolidge had remained in the GOP when TR left, his administration incorporate much of TR's progressivism. Again, political natural selection had improved the GOP. Guess where I'm headed with this?

It's time to rebuild a party whose membership is not dominated by religious zealotry. It's time to return to the facts-and-figures party of ideas, not one that asks Americans to pray to make the hurricane zone all better. I want to be able to vote GOP again, because I want a party that makes reason-based decisions to keep government efficient and let Americans create wealth and pursue their dreams. If you're a market or country Republican, now is the time for you to stop turning a blind eye to the Religious Right just because they get voters to the polls (until the ruin the party), and show them the door - and then we'll be able to elect the twenty-first century Coolidge. Otherwise we'll be doing the equivalent of running Taft again, and 2012 will be even uglier than 2008, and Americans' range of choices will be narrower. Michael Grunwald in Time gives an excellent forward-looking rundown of the state of the GOP and how it must evolve to survive in the future. He focuses on one politician as the face of the the GOP's next phase:

Indiana Governor: The Future of the Party

Mitch Daniels was a somewhat tragic figure as President Bush's budget director, a policy-wonk small-government conservative who found himself carrying water for a politics-driven, big-government budget-buster. His aides almost had to strap him down to get him to sign a White House-directed letter supporting the corporate-welfare farm bill of 2002. But as Indiana's governor, he's gotten to do things his own way, privatizing roads, expanding health coverage, even supporting tax increases to get his state's fiscal house in order. His tough-love measures were unpopular for awhile, but after he cruised to reelection while Obama won his state, he's got to be part of the conversation about future Republican leaders, a former Reagan aide and drug-company executive who cares about policy and knows what he's doing.

Mickey Edwards makes the same case in Reclaiming Conservatism, that a substantial retooling is required – and a move away from religious fervor and anti-intellectualism – and this is a Republican legislator from Oklahoma who helped found the Heritage Foundation, not some Libertarian from San Francisco with a blog. He takes to task the mutant form of "conservatism" that pollutes the ideals of Lincoln's party in the minds of Americans today, pinning the cause of the drift on "coalition forming with neoconservatives, the religious right and former supporters of George Wallace who all owed little to the Goldwater-style conservatism in which the thing being 'conserved' was the liberal revolution embodied in the Constitution." Hoover Institute Fellow Bill Whalen has recently called for a twenty-first century conservatism. Seen any headers with that phrase recently?

Or, instead of reclaiming conservatism, American rank-and-file conservatives could stay with the social-religious wing of the party that performed so well on Tuesday. Yes, I did my share of Palin-bashing leading up to the election. Palin was chosen because the GOP thought she could unite religious conservatives, disaffected Hillarians, and bring down the average age of the ticket, not because she was the most brilliant conservative executive in the country. But I also don't think she's a bad person. For example, I would buy a house from Sarah Palin. I would live next door to Sarah Palin. And there is nothing inconsistent with saying I still don't want her to be President, or Vice President, and that goes beyond my disagreement with her views. If you owned shares in Pfizer, a massive pharmaceutical company, and they were going to bring in as CEO a woman who had only run a small San Diego biotech company with 50 employees, how would that sit with you - even if you fundamentally agreed with her strategic plan and management philosophy? Now how about if you didn't?

The big question is, what's more important to you, your country, or your party? I hope I don't have to make that choice in another election. The Democrats have their man in the White House for the next four, and I plan to do my 0.00000001% on this blog to persuade him, through you, to change certain policies that I disagree with.

One more question: the U.S. has been around for 219 years. What are your plans for us for the next 219 years?


JoePa Uber Alles said...

One small historical error: the GOP took back the White House with Warren G. Harding in 1920, then Coolidge took office after Harding died, ran once on his own successfully, and then left office, with Hoover winning in 1928.

Thomas Paine Jr. said...

Thanks for catching that - that's not small. I knew that! Corrected in the post.