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.


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