Friday, June 27, 2008

what's wrong (and right) with the republican party

I blogged last time about John McCain, how he could be more effective as a candidate, and whether there was any chance that he would do it. This time I'm asking the same questions about the Republican Party. I'm especially interested in what the party can do better in states like Pennsylvania, where I live, that have demonstrated a strong blue tendency that shows little sign of abating even if McCain should pull through.

The Republican Party in the Northeast is caught between a flawed ideology at the national level and little if any ideology at the local level. The first of these is the more obvious problem. A party built around low taxes, strong defense, and conservative positions on social issues has difficulty gaining traction in an area that is increasingly progressive on domestic matters and which--while it produces a large number of military personnel--does not contain a large number of military bases or constitute a preferred location for military retirees. The abortion issue alone makes the party unacceptable to many women voters even if the individual candidate takes a pro-choice or modified pro-choice position. This problem is widely recognized and almost no one denies it.

The second half of the equation is less obvious. To avoid being swept up by the national trend, State and local Republican parties have tended to take a nonideological approach, emphasizing the efficient provision of Government services and relying on a combination of low turnout and gerrymandered election districts to maintain their political power. In this they have been immeasurably assisted by the tendency to hold county and township elections in odd numbered years when turnout is less than half, sometimes a third, that in presidential elections. (Turnout in even-numbered nonpresidential years, like 2006, is typically somewhere in between.) The tax issue provides some overlap with the national party, but tends to be muted at the local level, where the principal annoyant--school property taxes--is as much a question of assessments as underlying tax rates and frequently crosses party lines.

All of this worked well until the Democratic Party, aided by bloggers and other outside groups, began to "nationalize" local elections by making them referendums on national issues. When I ran for school board, the local Democrats circulated a flyer asking voters to "send a message" to the Bush Administration by supporting Democratic candidates in the off-year elections. Whether or not Bush got the message, such tactics have an indisputable effect, forcing Republicans to defend unpopular policies or fall back on a rather wan, nonideological approach that is no match for a national crusade. The presence of popular Democratic figures, like Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell or Phila. Mayor Michael Nutter, makes this tactic especially effective.

How should Republicans respond to this challenge?

The obvious answer is to adjust the party's program to emphasize a more creative, up-t0-date alternative to Democratic policies, which would have appeal at both a national and local level. This might include, for example, proposals to adopt alternative environmental policies, rather than simply denying environmental problems; tax reform rather than unrealistic tax cuts; and a foreign policy that looked beyond "Islamofascism" to embrace pro-western developments in Asia, Africa, and other continents. Proposals of this type have indeed been advanced by various recent authors, including David Frum, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, and various others (there was a good piece on this by David Brooks in the N.Y. Times last week). Yet with rare exceptions they have had little effect on Republican candidates, must of whom continue to emphasize a rather formulaic low tax, anti-immigrant, socially conservative line. For their part local parties seem inclined largely to distance themselves from the national version and emphasize local issues/personalities without much interest in ideological renewal.

It may be that only a truly cataclysmic loss at the national level will force Republicans into making these adjustments. The problem, if it be called that, is that McCain's relative strength as a candidate, and Obama's limitations, make it unlikely that this year's result--even if the Republicans should lose--will be strong enough to send a decisive message. My guess is that things will muddle on in more or less the current pattern until a combination of electoral losses and generational change force the party to pay attention. Remember that the Democrats lost three straight Presidential elections, all of them rather decisively, before they began to change. The Republicans have yet to lose one.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

what's wrong (and right) with mccain

Notwithstanding the anti-Republican mood, John McCain remains close to Barack Obama in most national polls. Yet his campaign and its candidate seem lacking in both energy and direction, and most experts, including most Republicans, expect the gap to broader rather than narrow in the months ahead. What's the matter with McCain, and what can be done to fix it?

One of the most often heard criticisms is the difference between McCain 2000 and McCain 2008. McCain 2000, it is said, was a reformer who took on special interests without fear or favor. McCain 2008, by contrast, is compromised by eight years of support for Bush (most of the time) and especially for the war in Iraq. One is reminded of the crack that the first President Bush put his manhood in trust during the Reagan Presidency, or worse yet of Bob Dole, who might have been a fine candidate in 1988 but proved a weak one eight years later.

I think this criticism is true and not true. McCain is surely older than in 2000--who isn't?--and his campaign sometimes takes on a bit of a revival flavor. But his essence is unchanged, and none of his core positions, with the exception of a slight dance on tax cuts, has really changed.

A bigger problem than McCain's persona is his campaign. Lacking a truly comprehensive grassroots organization, he has little choice but to tap into existing Republican networks that tend to be more doctrinaire conservatives than McCain himself. In Pennsylvania, for example, he has hired a number of operatives from Rick Santorum's 2006 election campaign, which spent something like $30 million and lost in a rout. If he wishes to run as a "maverick," McCain will thus be forced, not only to run against his own party, but to some degree his own campaign.

Can he pull it off? Stranger things have certainly happened. A McCain who ran a genuinely reformist campaign, emphasizing his willingness to take unpopular positions (Iraq, immigration, campaign finance) and his opponent's conventional liberalism, would be an attractive candidate to many swing voters. There are recent indications that he will indeed move in this direction. The problem is that there is nothing in the existing Republican Party that gives resonance to this approach. I am reminded of the time that the New York Yankees, who play in a ballpark designed for home runs, decided to emphasize speed, pitching, and defense. It lasted maybe a few months. Then again, the election is only four months away.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Back From the Dead . . .

As some of you know I have withdrawn from my congressional race and am back to being a pumpkin (and a blogger) again. The reasons for this slightly unorthodox decision are explained in more detail at my campaign website which should remain up for the next few weeks as I sort things out. Suffice it to say that I did not take the decision lightly, and lack of funds, although frustrating, was not the primary reason. Only a series of embarrassments and humiliations, many of them at the hands of my own Party, were sufficient to cause me to leave the race after securing the nomination and investing a considerable amount time and effort. I expected rough treatment or indifference from the opposition and the media, but not my own side: the latter made it clear that I would not only lose the election, but was unlikely to stimulate the kind of debate that I had in my earlier school board campaign, and that the honorable course was to get out while I still could.

It's a little bit early to sort out the lessons of this unhappy affair, but a few stand out already:

1. Don't run for office without having all of your ducks--financial supporters, campaign team, endorsements, etc.--in a row before you start. Once you are a declared candidate, you immediately become so busy with day-to-day operations that it is difficult to find time to plan ahead adequately. You also lose at least some of the leverage that you have when deciding whether to commit in the first place.

2. Never trust ward leaders or other party operatives to do anything you can do for yourself. Everyone in politics, even your best friend, has their own agenda that may and will differ from yours. You need to have your own team, whose primary or only loyalty is to you personally, and treat the rest as gravy that may or may not be available when the time comes.

3. Be clear about your goals in running. If you are running to win--obviously, the preferable case--be clear about your strategy and enthusiastic, even excessively so, in describing it to others. If you are running for other reasons, that's fine, but be clear what they are and careful whom you share them with.

4. Ideology goes only so far. People will support a candidate they agree with, but more often a candidate they thank can win. To paraphrase military historians, amateurs think issues; professionals think support.

5. All the stuff your mother told you in elementary school--make eye contact, tuck your shirt in, don't get stains on your tie--really does matter. In six months of campaigning, only two or three people told me they disapproved of my political philosophy. Six told me my shoes were untied.

I'll be talking more, in future posts, about broader lessons of the experience, including what is wrong (and right) with our political system and my recommendations for changing it. I'll also be talking about the 2008 campaign and other issues of contemporary importance. Right now, I'm taking a nap.