Political Animal


March 21, 2013 5:25 PM Simple Plan

By Ed Kilgore

Of all the vast literature on the current plight of the Republican Party, this fairly simple statement from Rich Lowry makes the most sense to me:

[S]o much depends on substance. No “rebranding” will make a difference if Republican policy is not relevant to people’s lives. What the party desperately needs more than different marketing or new political consultants are a few Jack Kemps, political entrepreneurs willing to ignore orthodoxies and evangelize for new ideas.
Kemp did his most important work as a backbencher in the House. Where is his equivalent today? It’s too bad John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy don’t tell some promising member to spend the next three months coming up with 10 ideas for promoting work in America, or for a new welfare reform agenda, or for replacing Obamacare, or for making college affordable. Instead, it’s all federal debt, all the time.

Now to be sure, Jack Kemp’s reputation as an idea man is being considerably inflated by Lowry. But it’s the right idea. Unfortunately, when you start trying to come up with “new ideas” on a broad array of issues, it tends to bring you directly into conflict with ideological shibboleths, the most important being the conservative conviction that government can’t do much of anything competently other than blowing things up and rewarding the already rewarded. Coming up with an actual way of “replacing Obamacare” that doesn’t exacerbate the worst features of the pre-reform status quo ante (e.g., the favorite Republican prescription of interstate insurance sales) isn’t a day’s work but that of years spent trying to overcome or subvert the conservative hostility to any real public sector role in health care, and to the very risk-spreading idea of health insurance itself.

I’m skeptical that a room full of Jack Kemps could come up with a whole lot that would meet any serious public policy smell test while passing the various litmus tests of the conservative movement that National Review (which Lowry edits) helped launch back in the day. But I suppose you gotta start somewhere, unless you want to forget about the steak and keep issuing reports about how to jazz up the sizzle.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Domage on March 21, 2013 6:08 PM:

    Indeed. Republicans have so narrowed the field of acceptable policy discussion within their party that it is now impossible for anyone to address any issue in a realistic fashion. Decades of pounding the culture war to the exclusion of developing actual policies that do anything other than shovel cash to the wealthy and wipe away regulations of all kinds has left the party incapable of developing or even discussing public policy in any meaningful way.

  • skeptonomist on March 21, 2013 7:04 PM:

    No, what the Republicans need, at least for the next few elections, is to clamp down somehow on the lunatic fringe (which may be a majority of the party) so that they don't dominate the message. The lunatics took over the Presidential nomination process and effectively shut out all reasonable candidates except the irrepressibly plutocratic Romney. A George Bush, who could at least fake moderation, might have won.

    In the long term the big-money Republicans will have to try to subvert some groups besides the white working class, but politicians don't generally look beyond the next election.

  • Robsalk on March 21, 2013 7:17 PM:

    The problem is, if someone on the right were to come up with a viable conservative (e.g. market oriented solution) to a real problem - cap and trade, let's say - Obama would likely pounce on it, and then no Republican could possibly be in favor of it. The problem with having a reasonable but partisan pragmatist in the White House is that no potential solution offered by Republicans can be reasonable and pragmatic without compromising on the partisanship, which is all that holds them together.

  • Rick B on March 21, 2013 7:30 PM:

    Robsalk, you really hit the nail on the head. The Republicans WANT to sell anti-Obamaism, but if they ever offer anything of any value Obama will take it away from them. All they are left with is to stop any and every proposal Obama supports for as long as possible.

    I don't see that is the basis for the continued existence of a national Republican Party. And with the demise of Bachman's Teabagger caucus, they can no longer blame the intransigence on the Teabaggers.

    I rather suspect that as long as this is the dynamic Obama will continue to tilt right and suffer the complaints of the FireDogLake crowd. Is this the current nature of the long game?

  • James E. Powell on March 21, 2013 10:44 PM:

    It may be that my memory is failing, but I can't think of any policy ideas that Jack Kemp came up with other than cutting taxes for the rich. Am I forgetting something?

  • square1 on March 22, 2013 12:03 AM:

    It isn't about "ideas". What distinguishes Jack Kemp is that Kemp wasn't a jerk and he wasn't a racist. It's amazing how fast you can come up with "ideas" once you actually care about solving a problem. Jack Kemp genuinely cared about bringing economic growth to communities in poverty. Most Republicans -- and, frankly, most elected Democrats -- don't give a crap about poor communities. At most, they only care about extracting votes.

    I'll give Lowry some credit. He at least recognizes that the GOP has to actually deliver results if it wants to successfully appeal to new constituencies.

  • cps828 on March 22, 2013 6:57 AM:

    "I'm skeptical that a room full of Jack Kemps could come up with a whole lot..."

    Sorry, but couldn't help picturing the legendary 1000 chimpanzees banging on typewriters and coming up with Shakespeare's works.

  • Steve LaBonne on March 22, 2013 11:13 AM:

    This treats Lowery's drivel with far more respect than it, or he, deserves. Conservative ideas reflect ignorance of economics and utter subservience to the 0.1%. That was as true of Jake Kemp as of any of the rest of them. There will never be conservative policies that "promote work", not if a living wage is involved. (And Obamacare already IS a conservative program, which is exactly what's wrong with it.) The "lunatic fringe" could be completely disempowered, and the basic lunacy of conservative ideas would remain.

  • boatboy_srq on March 22, 2013 11:26 AM:

    @square1 and Robsalk:

    It's amazing how fast you can come up with "ideas" once you actually care about solving a problem.

    And THAT's the difficulty with the GOTea. The only "problem" they want to solve is TABMITWH.

  • ron714 on March 23, 2013 1:07 AM:

    The thing about Jack Kemp, as noted by Square1 earlier, is that he was most definitely not a racist (how could anyone who played professional football be a racist?), and he genuinely cared about the the poverty-level constituents in his Buffalo, NY, district.
    That's the problem. There are very, very few members of Congress of either party who really care about poor people anymore. And I doubt if there are more than one or two GOP'ers who care about poor minorities.
    This is a big deal. Until there are competing ideas about how to serve poor minorities, nothing will be done.