Political Animal


March 15, 2013 11:35 AM We Have Met the Enemy And He Is Us

By Ed Kilgore

So what if the most honest self-evaluation of the Republican Party concluded “We’re screwed!”

That’s sorta the impression left by Matthew Continetti’s piece in the Weekly Standard entitled “The Double Bind.”

And the impact of his analysis, unless there’s just a collective decision to ignore it, could be significant. He is not, after all, some tweedy RINO interested in high-fives from the MSM or the opposition; he’s a stone partisan warrior (founder of the Washington Free Beacon and hagiographer of Sarah Palin) who would very much like to bring liberals weeping to their knees. He’s the sort of guy who would probably be quite happy if a one-party dictatorship could be established, or who may think the godless “elites” have already established one.

But he’s not in denial when it comes to the political dilemmas facing the Republican Party, which he neatly summarizes in a few graphs:

Here’s the problem. The domestic proposals that have the greatest chance of making the Republican party attractive to the “coalition of the ascendant”—immigrants, members of the millennial generation, single white women—involve far more government intervention in the economy than the GOP coalition—married white people, Wall Street, the Tea Party—will allow. And we haven’t even mentioned changing the GOP approach to social issues, which would drive the Republican base of religious conservatives out of the party. Pursuing such proposals would break the coalition that puts Republicans close to a majority.
On the other hand, sticking with the policies that glue this so-close-to-a-majority coalition together would foreclose the possibility of expanding the GOP vote. And it would limit the vote Republicans pull from disaffected voters who used to support the GOP but have turned away for various reasons.
There’s more. Trying to appeal to the coalition of the ascendant and the Reagan coalition simultaneously would give the party a severe case of political schizophrenia. The GOP would bewilder its historic base of support while disappointing newcomers, leading to confusion, disillusionment, apathy, and perhaps (ultimately) dissolution.

Continetti then goes through various suggestions for how Republicans can create a new electoral majority—notably that of Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, which I’ve written about here—and shows how they won’t work because one or more significant constituencies will veto it, or the targets of risky base-alienating “outreach” won’t be attracted. This passage is particularly pungent:

Imagine that an ambitious Republican barnstormed the country calling for an end to federal ownership of or investment in private companies, a flat-rate corporate tax with no loopholes or subsidies, a cap on the size banks can grow as a percentage of the economy, a major reform of federal involvement in education, including a national curriculum and changing the way school is financed, and additional rounds of deregulation. Business and social conservatives would slam him. Wall Street would not fund him. And the “coalition of the ascendant” would wonder, how does this help us?
On second thought, you don’t have to imagine this because an actual Republican, Jon Huntsman, barnstormed the country in 2011 with something closely resembling this agenda. And look what happened to him.

The most surprising thing about Continetti’s piece is that he doesn’t note (other than indirectly) the most obvious precedent for the efforts of today’s would-be “reformists:” Karl Rove’s strategy for taking a solid but slightly-submajority GOP base up a notch during George W. Bush’s first term. It was a “base-in” strategy (as opposed to the more familiar “center-out” strategy deployed most famously by Bill Clinton) that gave GOP base constituencies everything they wanted, while offering highly targeted public policy goodies to “swing” constituencies that could put the GOP over the top (see Stan Greenberg’s 2004 book The Two Americas for more detail on Rove’s strategy, which the Boy Genius never fully articulated himself, at least in public). So you had No Child Left Behind for married women with kids; Medicare Part D for the old folks; and comprehensive immigration reform for Hispanics. None of this worked out perfectly, but Bush did get re-elected in 2004. But he and the GOP paid a big psychic price for this victory in the buried resentment of conservative activists, which eventually burst through in the wave of recriminations towards Bush and “big government conservatism” in and after 2008, when this theme became the major justification for an otherwise counter-intuitive party swing to the Right.

There’s no particular reason to think the “base-in” strategies being discussed today—at least among the very small minority of Republican thinkers and gabbers who are willing to admit the party has real problems that can’t be fixed with technology or “messaging” improvements—will be any easier to pull off, as Continetti persuasively demonstrates.

So what’s his solution? Citing a column by Irving Kristol (father of the current editor of the Weekly Standard) from the 1970s, Continetti thinks eventually Republicans are going to have embrace a “conservative welfare state,” which could be roughly defined as an activist (if decentralized) government working to strengthen “pre-liberal institutions” like families and religious entities. He doesn’t bother to note that this is pretty much what major conservative parties in other advanced democracies have done, but I guess that wouldn’t be persuasive to big believers in “American exceptionalism.” Actually, none of his prescriptions will draw immediate rave reviews on the right:

Imagining a conservative welfare state requires Republicans to revisit some of the assumptions they have held since the end of the Cold War. Maybe the foremost concern of most Americans is not the top marginal income tax rate. Maybe you can’t seriously lower health care costs without radically overhauling the way we pay for health care. Maybe a political party can’t address adequately such middle-class concerns as school quality and transportation without using the power of government. Maybe the globalization of capital and products and labor hasn’t been an unimpeachable good.

And maybe, just maybe, our institutions would work a lot better if we had two major parties who pursued their own notions of “good government” instead of having one that celebrated sabotaging government whether in charge of it or in opposition.

Continetti closes by suggesting, as is common in pleas for significant political change, that it may take some exemplary leader like Reagan (ironically) to usher in the era of the “conservative welfare state,” and convince Republicans to abandon their illusions. The ritualistic invocation of RR’s holy name in this particular cause may greatly offend his intended audience, since one of their chief illusions is that Reagan presided over a latter-day Coolidge Administration that was steering the nation towards prelapsarian innocence until the treacherous Bushes and the wily Clinton (not to mention the Kenyan socialist Obama) spoiled his legacy. But conservative denialists will have a harder time rebutting his argument that the path they are on currently leads straight to nowhere.

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.


  • CJColucci on March 15, 2013 11:46 AM:

    Like so much advice to Republicans, this reminds me of the advice Lou Grant gave a nervous Ted Baxter shortly before his marriage to Georgette:

    LOU: Ted, you know the way you always are?

    TED: Yes.

    LOU: Stop being like that.

  • Josef K on March 15, 2013 11:57 AM:

    So what if the most honest self-evaluation of the Republican Party concluded “We’re screwed!”

    Indeed, so what? I get the sense the modern Conservative base isn't invested in any long-term thinking. They see only what they see in front of them, and that happens to be President Obama. The fact they're racing pell mell towards a cliff doesn't really penetrate.

  • c u n d gulag on March 15, 2013 12:03 PM:


    He stands now, as a heretic before their Gods: Mammon, Fascism, Racism, Misogyny, Xenophobia, and/or Homophobia!!!

    How long before the Conservatives and Republicans "Frum' him?
    (Aka: excommunicate him?).

    Poor boy.
    I'm sure, though, that Bill Kristol will do everything in his power to save his son-in-law.
    And, since that numb-nuts can't possibly do anything right, that means that this boy's doubly-screwed.

    "Form the circular firing-squads, men!"

    Best to start getting that low-fat/low-sodium popcorn, folks - lest we not live to see the end of this, sure to be very entertaining, show.

  • mb on March 15, 2013 12:09 PM:

    This just sounds like a Compassionate Conservatism reboot. I don't think we have to worry about the GOP becoming the party of effective gov't activism.

  • MuddyLee on March 15, 2013 12:13 PM:

    Thank you God that Bill Kristol is not MY father-in-law. Sorry, Matthew - but I still hated hearing you on NPR programs in 2012.

  • LL on March 15, 2013 12:18 PM:

    Probably the single biggest obstacle to the GOP ever changing anything about their party in the short run is their domination of a plurality of Statehouses, and their accompanying domination of rural districts. The peculiarities of how we draw congressional districts in this country dictate that the GOP will likely control the House of Representatives for at least a decade. Democratic voters are bunched tightly in urban regions and relatively few districts. GOP voters dominate more sparsely populated rural and exurban districts. Add to this shameless GOP gerrymandering, and you have a perfect dog's-breakfast in the House for years to come:


    All of which means that GOP representatives and the party that supports them will not change one iota. It, and they, don't have to. Of course, once 2022 rolls around, the GOP will likely become a truly regional rump party. Those will be the really interesting times, especially consideration that the catastrophic consequences of climate change will start biting down very, very hard about then.

  • T2 on March 15, 2013 12:25 PM:

    One only need listen to the screeds and hard-headed "we are right, everyone else is wrong" coming out of the CPAC to understand Continetti's ideas will fall on extremely deaf ears. You wonder why he hasn't figured that out by now? The GOP/TP is a party basically made of White Men desperate to hold on to life in the 1830's. Black man pick the cotton, White man sell it.

  • HelpThe99ers on March 15, 2013 12:26 PM:

    One party's notion of "good government" is still articulated by this quote:

    "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

    That's the Ronaldus Maximus that Conservatives idolize today.

  • Gandalf on March 15, 2013 12:26 PM:

    Perhaps the republicans should start with recognizing the same facts that the rest of americans whatever their political persuasion recognize. Stop politicizing science. Stop worshipping at the alter of the free market. Stop ass kissing the rich. The rich are doing just fine. They have acumulated more wealth under the marxist,socialist,dictator Obama than they have under anyone else. Read about this guy Paulson(not the one that was in the govt) the other day about how he was scheming to move to Puerto Rico in order to not pay as much tax as he'd have to in New York where he somehow managed to accumulate a paltrey 9.5 billion dollars.
    This guy will never be able to spend his wealth in his lifetime nor will his children. So why, The answer is unadulterated greed. Nobody in this country with very few exceptions objects to people getting wealthy. We all pretty much aspire to it. But c'mon now you don't have to own everything.

  • boatboy_srq on March 15, 2013 12:27 PM:

    pre-liberal institutions

    What are those? Patriarchal, extended families? Poll taxes? Citizen-soldiers? Explicitly hereditary political positions? Handcopied books? Stoning of adulturesses? Four-humour medicine? Hammurabi's legal code?

    "Liberal" isn't some modern construct: the ideas inherent in liberalism go back millenia. If Continetti wants to pre-date anything "liberal" he's going to have to look a long way back - and chances are what he finds won't make Conservatists any happier than being told that they might just have to adjust to the 21st century after all.

  • Renai on March 15, 2013 12:38 PM:

    "disaffected voters who used to support the GOP but have turned away for various reasons."

    ...didn't he rather vaguely and quickly skate past what should have been a rather poignant point?

  • Peter C on March 15, 2013 12:41 PM:

    "more government intervention in the economy than the GOP coalition—married white people, Wall Street, the Tea Party—will allow."

    Wow! I didn't think the GOP Message machine would allow someone to admit the 'Wall Street' was a central pillar of the Republican Party. What, all those elitists???

    Also, I guess Jim and Tammy Bakker only got in because they were 'married white people'. It is fun to see him dis'ing the Religious Right. THEY aren't worth mentioning as important to the 'COP Coalition' (unless they are married or wear tea bags on their hat).

  • dweb on March 15, 2013 1:11 PM:

    I think Dick Morris read this article out loud yesterday at CPAC. This dichotomy between the wings of the GOP has been coming for a long time and you could see more and more signs of it during the last campaign. When Mike Huckabee railed and howled over efforts by unnamed (but clearly Karl Rove-related) party functionaries who tried to cut off funding for Todd Aiken after his blunders over abortion, he was railing against the traditionalists in the party who he saw as trying to knee cap true believers like Aiken.

    And Rove clearly sees the Aikens of the party as the reason the party is going to have so many problems going forth. And you can see already that the Huckabee branch of the party is far from ready to abandon nominating disastrous candidates. Watch Iowa where Steve King is headed for the GOP nomination for Senate. Watch SC where Lindsay Graham is quaking at the prospects of being primaried from the right. Watch Kansas where the wingnuts have taken full control of the Legislature and using it to craft a John Birch Utopia.

    And watch CPAC where speaker after speaker says, "We don't have to change our views....we just have to get better candidates who articulate our message better."

    Good on you guys...keep it up.

  • bmoodie on March 15, 2013 1:12 PM:

    To be brutally honest, I think the GOP's only hope for a winning strategy for now is to try to tank the economy as much as in the hopes of a backlash against Obama. It's definitely the one they will and are trying, since the high number of veto points in the American political system gives them the tools to do the job.

  • Peter C on March 15, 2013 1:28 PM:

    I agree with @bmoodie. At this point, the GOP needs the fear and anger of economic pain to have any hopes of overcoming their internal structural problems. We've got to continue to highlight their economic sabotage.

  • Anonymous on March 15, 2013 1:33 PM:

    "Continetti then goes through various suggestions for how Republicans can create a new electoral majority . . ."

    I thought the strategy for creating a new conservative electoral majority was to restrict the pool of electors to those demographic sectors that traditionally vote conservative.

  • JM917 on March 15, 2013 1:38 PM:

    @ bmoodie: To be brutally honest, I think the GOP's only hope for a winning strategy for now is to try to tank the economy as much as in the hopes of a backlash against Obama. It's definitely the one they will and are trying, since the high number of veto points in the American political system gives them the tools to do the job.

    ADD TO THAT: Then, after tanking the economy to get a GOP president + Senate majority + control of a majority of the states + continuing control of SCOTUS and the House, to enact enough vote-restricting measures at all levels of government that will entrench themselves permanently in power. To hell with democracy, of course--make it a white/male/"Christian"/Wall-Street-friendly oligarchy forever and ever.

  • Th on March 15, 2013 1:53 PM:

    This was a long time ago, bmoodie and Peter C. but in 1980 we had a Democratic incumbent telling us that we needed to scale back our expectations of the future and a guy with a big smile telling us we could have it all. Even people who thought Reagan was nuts voted for him just because he said he could make it happen. That is how the Republicans win again; some poor mouthing Democrat against a snake oil salesman. Optimism attracts people.

  • jonh on March 15, 2013 2:00 PM:

    May the R's could split into social conservative and economic conservatives. The economics could go the way of the Whigs, and the Democrats already occupy the territory of the lost tribe of moderate Republicans.

    What about the social conservatives?

    I've said it before, I say it again: in economic policy, there is plenty of room to the left of today's Democrats. Our new party, 'Christian Heritage' maybe, could chsnnel the ghost of William Jennings Bryant, and follow the example of Germany's Christian Democrats.

    By supporting unions, single-payer, etc., they might be able to restrict abortion, which is supposedly what truly matters to them. Heaven knows, the economic republicans have used them for 30 years and they have not much to show for it.

    Maybe we could have an official national religion, and achieve the levels of piety found in Sweden or France.
    (And who wouldn't want to decide religious dogma by majority vote?)

  • tom rogers on March 15, 2013 2:33 PM:

    Ed mentions the same thing that struck me when reading Mr. Continetti's article; Reagan was the articulator of our present malaise out of D.C., that gummint IS the problem. That so many Republicans work so tirelessly to gain a seat at that table only so that they can prove that idiotic sentiment correct is a big reason why we can't have nice things.

    What saddens me, perhaps because I'm a retiree just like many of my peers in the Tea Party, is that we would be a force to reckon with if we could put aside our differences and confront the Wall St. coup that has afflicted greedy turds from both parties. Electoral reforms would go a long way toward that end, but inertia and greedy fucks who think only of the bennies they'll reap once they perform enough tricks for their masters are determined to ignore the calls for public financing of campaigns. We let them split us and now we are weaker for it.

  • gregor on March 15, 2013 2:48 PM:

    Republicans are for transvaginal ultrasound, higher taxes for the middle class and the poor, lower taxes for the rich, inequality in the workplace, shooting of all those entering at the border, a gun in every household, no food assistance for the poor, no unemployment benefits for those without jobs, unequal acccess to health care, etc. etc.

    It is astonishing that yer the GOP exists as a credible alternative to the Democrats.

  • Col Bat Guano on March 15, 2013 4:26 PM:

    There is no political party that can survive indefinitely on a platform that says "Government should have no role in regulating the food you eat, the water you drink, the banks you put your money in or the corporations who control what jobs are available, but should definitely be involved in the decisions you make about what contraceptives you use or children you bear or religion you worship."

  • rrk1 on March 15, 2013 7:09 PM:

    As long as 'Citizens' United' remains the basis for our election campaigns, any vestige of democracy, no matter how already diluted, becomes an anachronism, and money rules the process totally. Therefore the outcome of elections can be ignored, as the election of 2012 has been, and the eternal quest for campaign contributions, and issue-oriented PACs skewing and screwing the political process, rule the day.

    If money rules, and voting no longer matters, what sort of a political process do we have? How about a banana republic-lite?