The GOP’s Smart Plan to Avoid Change

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Abortion for some, miniature American flags for others. Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/2012 AFP

The Republican National Committee released a major report today that amounts to the party’s formal response to its 2012 election defeat. The report determinedly avoids confronting the party’s most fundamental problem: Its attachment to an economic agenda that most voters correctly identify as serving the needs of a wealthy minority. Rather than confront the problem, the report is a detailed and generally shrewd plan for working around it.

The correct premise of the report is that the Republican Party faces a growing demographic problem, in which older, whiter, and more conservative voters are dying off and being replaced by younger, more diverse, and more liberal ones. The report urges the party, in so many words, to move left on gay rights and immigration, arguing that these issues are a “gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.” It does not address the fact that younger voters are also overwhelmingly pro-government in general — supportive of Obamacare, favorable toward having the government “do more to solve problems,” and inclined to think the economic system favors the wealthy.

Instead, the report addresses the problem obliquely. It urges the use of populist rhetoric in place of more populist policy:

Democrats tend to talk about people, Republicans tend to talk about policy. Our ideas can sound distant and removed from people’s lives. Instead of connecting with voters’ concerns, we too often sound like bookkeepers. We need to do a better job connecting people to our policies

In the less-shrewd category, the report urges that it “Establish an RNC Celebrity Task Force of personalities in the entertainment industry.” In other words, build on the undeniable success of the 2012 convention. One envisions a national tour of Lincoln-Douglas style debates in which Clint Eastwood debates stools, chairs, ottomans, beanbags, and, should he best them all, even a mighty sofa.

The report urges Republicans to “attack corporate welfare,” but they already do attack it — the problem is that they insist it can only be reduced if 100 percent of the savings are plowed back into lower marginal tax rates. Likewise, the RNC urges its party to “speak out” against business:

We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years.

It is noteworthy that the RNC focuses on absurd executive compensation. Rising executive pay is but a tiny element of the broader divergence between the economic fortunes of the very rich and the middle class. And even the most modest attempts to address this small piece of the problem — giving shareholders the ability to veto abusive compensation schemes such as those the RNC cites above — have provoked overwhelming opposition from Republicans. One wonders what this speaking-out process would look like. Regular press conferences to denounce excessive bonuses and retirement practices?

The closest the report comes to advocating a policy response for non-rich voters is its call for “making sure the government’s safety net is a trampoline, not a trap.” Everybody obviously wants programs for the poor to help the poor advance. But what does this mean? Paul Ryan always talks about the safety net as a trap that lulls the poor into laziness, and his budget likewise devotes enormous space to “repairing” the safety net, which he defines as slashing subsidies for health care, food, college, and other fripperies so poor people get off their lazy butts and make something of themselves. Is that how the RNC wants to stop the safety net from being a trap? Or does it propose the opposite? The report does not even hint.

George W. Bush’s response to this agenda was to avoid the economic trade-off altogether: He maintained and even expanded social spending while passing huge, regressive tax cuts. The report does not explicitly urge a return to this approach. But it does repeatedly laud the 43rd president, who is cited some half-dozen times as a figure of wisdom whose example should be emulated. (“Hispanics believe that Republicans have not had an effective Hispanic engagement program since President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign … The 2004 Bush campaign pursued the same effective strategy against Senator John Kerry. … President George W. Bush used to say, ‘Family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande ... and a hungry mother is going to try to feed her child.’”)

The Bush problem comes into focus when the report defines its generational problem as a memory issue. “For many of the youngest voters and new 2016 voters,” the authors argue, “their perception of the two parties was born during the Barack Obama era, and that perception will help determine their worldview moving forward.” But it is not merely a particular enthusiasm for Barack Obama that has defined the liberalism of younger voters. The partisan voting gap first opened in 2004, and continued in 2006, suggesting that the backlash against Bush has done at least as much to define young voters’ partisan identity. You can understand why report authors like Bush administration Press Secretary Ari Fleicher would gloss over this detail.

The vast majority of the report devotes itself to advocating a lengthy series of mechanical campaign fixes. The most interesting of them are a call to cut the number of presidential primary debates in half and to undertake a vast effort to eliminate restrictions on political donations. The aggregate effect of these changes would be to have Republicans spend less time communicating their ideas via moderated public debate, and more time communicating them via crafted propaganda. Whatever the civic merits of the idea, it appears to be a shrewd gambit to present a more appealing face to the public.

In fact, the entire strategy laid out in the report has an undeniable logic. Evading the party’s central problem is not necessarily an irrational choice. The people who run the Republican Party care a great deal about low tax rates on the rich and pro-business policies in general. That is an electoral liability, but not one so prohibitive that Republicans can never win despite it. (Indeed, they can already control the House, and could win back the Senate, owing to the structural pro-Republican tilt of both chambers.)

If you cared a lot about preserving that policy focus, you’d urge the party to chuck overboard a couple issues ancillary to your economic agenda (opposition to immigration and gay rights, which Republican elites never really cared about to begin with), focus on building the most technically competent and best-funded campaign apparatus you could muster, and take your chances. That’s exactly what the report advocates.

And why not? Parties don’t exist merely to maximize their power. They exist to advance ideas. You don’t have to agree with the GOP’s ideas to recognize that they have reasons to hold on to them even if they stand in the way of political success.