A less cheesy rebranding regimen is being whipped up by moderate conservative pundits like Josh Barro of Bloomberg View, Ross Douthat of the Times, and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, who want to reinvent actual Republican policy so that it will focus on the needs of the same middle-class Americans apotheosized by Obama. George Will, among others on the right, has gone so far as to call for breaking up the big banks. “The perception that the Republican Party serves the interests only of the rich underlies all the demographic weaknesses that get discussed in narrower terms,” is how Ponnuru crystallized the problem.
But there are more than a few barriers to realizing this rescue plan. As the political scientist John Sides has written, the association of the Republican Party with the rich and big business—and of the Democrats with the less well-off—was as much a fixture in polls in 1953 as it was in 2012. What’s remained immutable for six decades cannot be changed overnight, even if there were a will and a way in the party. And there is no will or way. Republicans still oppose Wall Street reform and upper-bracket tax cuts while balking at raising the minimum wage; they have failed to formulate any compelling policy to alleviate the No. 1 cause of middle-class insecurity, health insurance, unless you count Romneycare, the Obamacare Ur-text they disowned. Though moderate conservative pundits may offer ideas for economic remedies that might help the non-rich, no GOP politicians with any clout embrace them. This compelled Douthat to wave a white flag in a blog entry last month, “Real Republican reinvention is a cause in search of a standard-bearer.”
That’s because real Republican leaders don’t want any reinvention that ventures much beyond forced smiles; retooled, focus-group-tested language (in English and Spanish); and blather about “the kids.” As another moderate conservative pundit, Kathleen Parker, has conceded since the election, her party now “is the fringe.” The GOP’s problem isn’t bad messaging; it’s that its message has been, if anything, all too readily understood. When Akin talks about “legitimate rape” or McDonnell endorses a bill that would impose transvaginal probes even on rape victims seeking abortions, they are not garbling their message but saying it outright, loud and clear. The same goes for Joe Scarborough, who recently branded Paul Krugman an “extremist” comparable to Wayne LaPierre, and Senator Ted Cruz, the rising new tea-party heartthrob from Texas who essentially accused the former Republican senator (and Vietnam hero) Chuck Hagel of being a North Korean Commie mole during his confirmation hearings. The message of the GOP vox populi is no less forthright: Republican audiences at the presidential-primary debates booed a gay American soldier serving in Iraq, cheered the record number of executions conducted on Rick Perry’s watch in Texas, and cried out “Yeah!” when a moderator asked Ron Paul if a 30-year-old man in a coma without health insurance should be allowed to die.
All these views are consistent with the actual political leadership of the GOP, as opposed to the more centrist standard-bearers conservative Beltway pundits fantasize about in their dreams. In a recent bout of algorithm-crunching, Nate Silver drew on detailed compilations of congressional voting records, fund-raising sources, and public issue statements to assign conservative “scores” to major Republican politicians of the past half-century. The scores for the new generation of national leaders (and potential presidential candidates) favored by the party’s base were all high—Jindal (44), Rubio (51), McDonnell (53), Cruz (53), Paul Ryan (55), Rand Paul (65)—placing almost all of them to the right of such leaders as Richard Nixon (22), George H.W. Bush (33), McCain (39), Romney (39), Palin (41), Reagan (44), and George W. Bush (46). Chris Christie (9) and Jon Huntsman (17) may be beloved by what remains of “moderate” Republicans, but they’re the ones who are off-message with the majority of the GOP, not Rubio or McDonnell or Ryan or Paul.
This is why Karl Rove’s “Conservative Victory Project,” which would oppose rape-obsessed candidates like Akin when they surface in GOP Senate primaries, was dead on arrival. Republicans vote for candidates like Akin in primaries because they actually believe in them, not because they are duped. Let Rove throw his donors’ money against Steve King, the nativist congressman toying with a 2014 Senate run in Iowa, and the base will strike back. Indeed, it already has. Hardly had Rove announced his new project than a prominent tea-party organization, Tea Party Patriots, sent out an e-mail superimposing his face on a photo of Heinrich Himmler. The right-wing radio talker Mark Levin was so infuriated that he ranted, “Who the hell died and made Karl Rove queen for the day?” Erick Erickson, who runs the popular blog RedState, wrote that “any candidate who gets this group’s support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement.”