Yesterday. 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.
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.