Republicans Can’t Moderate

Scared RepublicansYesterday. Ed Kilgore confronted some of the more reasonable conservative pundits for their reaction to the RNC’s “autopsy report.” People like David Frum and Reihan Salam claim that the document doesn’t skirt the real issues facing the Republican Party. Instead, they say, such a report should only look at messaging and leave the policy ideas to conservative wonks and politicians. In fact, Frum faults the report for even talking about immigration. The problem is that messaging is a small part of the difficulties that the party is having. The party’s policies are their biggest challenge. And if the RNC doesn’t address policies, who will?

Republican Think Tanks

The problem, Kilgore rightly points out, is that left to themselves, the politicians and wonks just move the party further and further to the right. I would add that the main conservative “think tanks” have long ago turned away from policy. These days, the Heritage Foundation focuses almost exclusively on how to sell their long ossified conservative policy preferences. The Cato Institute is only interested in studies that support their given brand of libertarianism. And the Media Research Center is simply committed to finding “liberal bias” in all news that is not Republican propaganda. So the conservative wonks are not really wonks and certainly won’t be pushing the Republican Party in the direction of more widely appealing policy.

Republican Politicians

As for the politicians, Kilgore goes into some depth discussing how Republican politicians are likely to affect the party’s policy ideas. With almost no exceptions, when Republicans run in swing districts, they still race each other to see who can be most conservative. He calls this the “more-conservative-than-thou competition.” As he sums up, “The GOP hasn’t just ‘failed to adjust’; it’s moved hard right.”

It is as if Republican politicians have only one trick: be more conservative. I think there is much to this. On her show tonight, Rachel Maddow presented four recent cases where a major Republican politician made a claim that they immediately had to take back. For example, John Boehner claimed that we should do a background check on all gun purchases. But as soon as the interview was over, he “clarified” that he isn’t in favor of universal background checks. Similarly, John Kasich told News Channel 5 that he was in favor of same sex civil unions. But right after the interview, he released a statement “clarifying” that he is against civil unions. The same thing happened with Rand Paul and Mitt Romney on different issues.

What is going on here? I think it is that Republicans don’t really believe in anything other than tax cuts for the wealthy. So they’ve never given any thought to any other issues. Basically, Republicans believe they are in power to cut taxes. Their positions on all the other issues are just whatever is given by the party or the movement more generally. I’ve run into this a lot with people who are in the Republican base. I find that they often have one or two opinions that are completely at odds with the party. For example, I recently talked with a fanatical Tea Party member who was against the death penalty. She had seen a documentary which convinced her that capital punishment was racist and flawed. She was very passionate about the issue and her thinking was very similar to my own. Of course, it was not an issue that affected how she voted; she was completely accepting of politicians who were rabid capital punishment proponents. But more to the point, she was in lockstep with the party about all other issues—because she’d never thought much about them.

Republicans Don’t Think

When I was much younger, I had an experience of the same issue with a woman while she went through this transformation. I had argued with her a couple of times about her belief in the death penalty, so I knew her arguments and my own. Then she went to see the movie Gandhi. In the film, Gandhi responds to the standard canard with, “If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.” That turned this young woman into a death penalty opponent. I understand that; sometimes the strangest things make us rethink our beliefs. What I found frustrating was that I had used that same argument against her multiple times. It was as though she had not been listening to me.

This, I believe, is what these Republican politicians are doing. Rob Portman didn’t rethink his position on same sex marriage. He had never thought about the issue in the first place. His party was against it and so he was too. When he learned his son was gay, he was forced to think about it. And he came to the same conclusion that anyone would if they approached it with an open mind and heart. And in a sense, Portman did have an open mind and heart; they certainly weren’t cluttered with clever or complex arguments that justified opposition to same sex marriage. They were only filled with the talking point, “I am against same sex marriage because I believe marriage is a union of one man and one woman.”

Republicans Need to Think

For the Republican Party to moderate its policies, its members would have to think about those policies. But they aren’t operating on that level. Instead, it is “abortion is wrong.” That does not lead to thinking about the competing interests of fetus and mother. Even the idea of the “life of the mother” exception is determined by the conservative movement and not the individual conservative. I doubt one conservative in 20 could explain why an exception for the mother’s life would be ethically justified. So that leads such people to move ever toward the most conservative position. (See my article On Hating Women for a discussion of this.)

So there are no important players in the Republican Party who can work to moderate their policies. And let’s not forget: the issue is the policies. Republicans have not been losing races because the electorate doesn’t understand their positions. They have been losing elections because the electorate understands their positions only too well. When Todd Akin discussed “legitimate rape,” he was expressing his actual belief that it is common for women to falsely report rape. When George Allen had his “Macaca moment,” he was expressing his actual belief that Caucasians are the real Americans and other cultures are strange and suspect. And when Mitt Romney said that 47% of the people won’t take responsibility for their lives, he was most definitely expressing his actual belief that the poor are morally inferior to the rich.

What Way Forward?

In order to improve their electoral fate, Republicans will have to rethink their policies. But there is literally no institution of the party that is capable of doing this. The Republican Party has systematically purged itself of anyone and anything that doesn’t work to strengthen the existing dogma of the party. In that way, they are more like a cult than a political party. I honestly don’t know how they move forward in this regard. I think it will be a long and painful process.

An Apple, a Piano, and Chico

Chico MarxThe great actor Karl Malden was born on this day back in 1912. And he only died back in 2009 at the age of 96. I will always remember his performance of Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire. He is the only character in that film that I really understand; I feel like I’ve been in that situation countless times. And his performance is, as always, wonderful. He was very good at playing fundamentally decent characters. It always gave me the impression that he was a fundamentally decent guy. He was married to the same woman for over 70 years.

Werner Klemperer, better know as Colonel Klink, was born in 1920. He was a classical musician who only did acting on the side. The great chess Grandmaster Larry Evans was born in 1932.

Pat Robertson is 83 today. This is made up for because Stephen Sondheim was born that same day. Character actor M. Emmet Walsh is 78. And overrated composer Andrew Lloyd Webber is 65.

The man of the day, however, is my favorite Marx Brother: Chico Marx who was born in 1887. What is there to say about him other than:

Happy happy birthday!

Conservatives Are Not for Smaller Government

Reasonable RepublicansDavid Dayen wrote a very annoying article over at The American Prospect yesterday, Banks Are Too Big to Fail Say… Conservatives? The problem is that it totally accepts that conservatives care about what they claim to care about rather than looking at what they actually do. In this case, he notes that those on the left and the right claim to be upset about banks that are too big to fail. There is a fundamental problem with this, of course. The main reason that the banks weren’t broken up is that conservatives were hysterical in Obama’s first year that he was going to destroy capitalism by nationalizing the banks. Dayen even mentions Glenn Hubbard as one of the conservative economists who want to end too big to fail banks. Yet Hubbard has been one of the biggest enablers of our corrupt banking system, and no one can serious suggest that he would ever do anything that would hurt bank profits or power.

At one point, Dayen writes, “The Tea Party’s sole prescription for solving Too Big to Fail was to simply let banks collapse.” This is flat out wrong. There was no Tea Party movement following the bank bailouts. It was only when the government started to look at helping out distressed homeowners that the Tea Party burst into existence. It is true that at that time they claimed that we shouldn’t have bailed out the banks. But it was the bailout of ordinary homeowners that really got them going. They couldn’t very well go around complaining about homeowners and maintain that that banks should have been helped.

And even that early phase of the Tea Party is gone. At that time, they were at least interested in economic matters. Now they seem to be nothing but the right flank of the Republican Party. What’s more, their primary issues are opposition to reproductive rights and opposition to immigration. These are not people who care very much what the banks are doing, as long as they aren’t loaning money to pay for abortions.

Dayen then discusses Sherrod Brown working with conservative loon David Vitter to increase bank capital standards. They are presented as “strange bedfellows” who are working for an objective good. Unfortunately, as we know only too well, if their effort gets any traction, the bank lobbyists will come in and Vitter (like John McCain and many other Republicans before him) will turn on a dime against his former bill which will then be socialist and a direct attack on everything that makes America great.

What’s more, let’s not forget just how extreme Vitter is on pretty much any issue you can mention. I’m sure his concern about capital standards is just an excuse to complain about the Fed. His real problem is more along the lines of wanting to see the Fed limited and even destroyed. He is a golden example of the faux-free market conservatives who want small (or nonexistent) government when it comes to individuals and huge government when it comes to corporate welfare. Note also: he was a leader in the fight against the Franken amendment, that said that employees who were raped by other government contract workers didn’t have to submit to arbitration to get justice. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Vitter or pretty much any Republican.

The article repeatedly attacks the very weak Dodd-Frank bill. But no mention is made of the endless ways in which the bill was weakened by amendments offered by Republicans who always intended to vote against the final bill—and who did. In theory, there are lots of conservatives who are for a better banking system. But the moment any real changes happen that might hurt a single banker, they will turn on it. Of course, the same can be said of most professional Democrats. And that brings up an obvious question: if Republicans are really for fixing the banking system, why are they united in opposition to campaign finance reform? If we got that, then we could get real banking reform.

Liberals are constantly giving conservatives a pass on what their real intentions are. This is most evident in the belief that conservatives are for small government. Conservatives are for big government. It is just that they want all the government going to the rich. They are against safety net programs for poor families. But they are all for safety net programs for billion dollar corporations. David Vitter and the Tea Party caucus are among the very worst in this regard.