Friday, November 21, 2008

The Right Agenda: Stop Doing What Doesn't Work

In any political movement, there are bound to be tensions between following principle and political feasibility. But there shouldn't be any problem with rejecting strategies that both violate principles and fail politically.

Yet this does not seem self-evident to some in the Republican Party. Hence the need to review the strategies employed by Republicans in recent years that have been proven failures.


It sounds so reasonable. "Republicans should move to the center to get the support of more moderate and swing voters." The only problem is that there is absolutely no evidence that this ever works. There may some particular districts where moderates have an advantage, but on the national level they don't. Consider recent Presidential elections. Every time the Republican ran as a moderate (McCain, Dole, Bush 41 in 1992, Ford) he lost. Every time the Republican ran as a conservative, whether he actually was or not, (Bush 43, Bush 41 in 1988, Reagan, Nixon) he won. Republicans also won control of Congress in 1994 on a very conservative platform.

Why is this? Conservatives motivate the Republican base. There are plenty of people who are broadly conservative but not very political. If Republican candidates never mention the issues that are important to them, and take liberal or moderate position they disagree with, they will stay home. Who can really blame them?

Further, the base donates money and does the volunteer work necessary to make political campaigns successful. This is no surprise, as people whose ideals are further from the status quo have more reason to work to change things.

Conversely, there aren't nearly as many votes in the center as people think. Many 'swing voters' are really just indecisive people who don't know what they believe.

Yet another reason not the be moderate is that 'moderate' policies are bad policies, and bad policies have bad political consequences. When energy prices were a major issue in 2008, Republicans were stuck with a candidate who had opposed much expansion of energy production, until he did a quick turnaround on offshore drilling. Plenty more examples could be given.


Many Republican members of Congress believe that obtaining 'earmarks', provisions in bills directing that money in appropriations bills be spent in certain ways, are the key to political success. But where is the evidence of this? Yes, there are many safe Republicans who also get lots of earmarks. There are also safe Republicans who don't get earmarks. The fate of vulnerable Republicans doesn't seem to depend on whether they got earmarks or not.

But pork-barrel spending has carried plenty of political risk. It has upset the base, and likely depressed conservative support for Republicans. Earmarking helps to pass bad legislation and discourages Republicans from voting against big spending bills they would otherwise oppose. Earmarking also carries a significant risk of encouraging corruption, which can not only endanger individual seats, but tarnish the party across the board.

Earmarking should be significantly curtailed, if not eliminated.


While "compassionate conservatism" may have been meritorious as conceived by Marvin Olasky, as practiced by the Bush administration it has been a disaster. "Compassionate conservatism" and "big-government conservatism" have become almost the same thing in practice.

The idea of this strategy as conceived by Karl Rove is that once Republicans won an election, they should do the exact opposite of what people who voted for them wanted and try to attract the votes of people who never vote Republican to create a "permanent Republican majority". They should use big government toward supposedly conservative ends like everyone owning a house and all students performing equally well on standardized tests.

Of course, when put this way it doesn't sound like such a brilliant strategy. Predictably, this strategy alienated the base and didn't attract many new voters. The few it did attract didn't stay long.

Bush's biggest legislative efforts centered around this strategy. No Child Left Behind increased federal education spending and regulation. It failed to win more votes from teachers or mothers and is widely regarded as a failure. Conservatives were upset by increased spending and bizarre requirements, and democrats falsely claimed that it was 'underfunded' and didn't spend enough.

Bush's prescription drug bill was designed to win the support of old people by spending huge amounts of money giving drugs to seniors. It further alienated fiscal conservatives, and did precious little to win the votes of seniors. Democrats voted against it because it wasn't big enough.

Bush also made a major effort to increase mortgage lending for minorities, particularly Hispanics. This could only be accomplished by lowering lending standards. This led to the housing bubble, and the ensuing bursting of the bubble. This has led to the present financial crisis that we face. Hispanics went a bit more for Bush in 2004, but stayed away from McCain in 2008, amidst widespread home foreclosures. The financial crisis was a major factor costing Republicans votes across the board in 2008. It's true that democrats have pushed similar policies for years, but that doesn't negate Bush's share of the responsibility.

Then there was Bush's repeated attempts to promote amnesty for illegal aliens. This failed to win Hispanic votes for him or McCain. It not only alienated conservatives, but also many of the roughly 70% of Americans who oppose amnesty.

If these examples prove anything, it is that it is never a good idea to promote bad policies in order to win votes. (Rather, it's never a good idea for a Republican to do so.)

Whatever strategy Republicans pursue henceforth, it should not be any of these three, which have been tried and repeatedly failed.

1 comment:

Jack McHugh said...

Gosh, given all the deep-thinker navel gazing underway a three-part, back-to-basics refresher makes a lot of sense!