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August 07, 2014 4:45 PM Republican “Theories of Change”

By Ed Kilgore

The Prospect’s Paul Waldman asks an interesting question today that I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone else pose: with Republicans mostly in agreement on policy issues and basic ideology, and divided on strategy and tactics, might their 2016 nomination contest turn on different “theories of change” (the term Mark Schmitt famously applied to the Obama/Clinton competition of 2008)?

Like Democrats that year, Republicans understand the two parties will remain divided for the foreseeable future (yes, I think Obama understood that, too; his “bipartisanship” theory, I will always maintain, involved developing nonpartisan and cross-partisan public pressure on Republican pols, not relying on their good will), so they will need a strategy for what and how and how much they intend to accomplish. And even more than Democrats in 2008, Republicans probably won’t be able to count on overwhelming numbers in Congress to do whatever they want without resistance (given the Senate landscape for 2016 and the continuing availability of the filibuster on policy issues).

But unlike Democrats in 2008, Republicans will have to undergo a nomination process heavily influenced if not dominated by conservative activists who are determined not only to win, but to fundamentally change the country. In the early days after November 2008, there was some elite chatter about Democrats being able to pull off some sort of neo-FDR “realignment” of the country in the right (i.e., progressive) direction). In the 2016 GOP cycle, that sort of expectation will be a demand from many activists, and a constant topic of conversation. And it may even be realistic, if you recall those scary days in September of 2012 when it looked like Mitt Romney might win along with a narrow GOP Senate majority prepared to implement the Ryan Budget by a simple majority via budget reconciliation rules.

Waldman’s specific speculation about a Republican “theory of change” debate covers just two options:

[I]f 2016 winds up being a “theory of change” primary for Republicans, it could produce a fascinating debate. You’ll have at least a couple of candidates (like Ted Cruz) arguing that change can be achieved by pushing eight years of rage behind a chariot of glory rolling through Washington to cleanse it of any trace of Barack Obama’s reign. I’m not sure what Rand Paul’s theory of change might be. And apparently, Rick Perry wants to be the reasonable, business-minded conservative who knows how to get things done.

I’ve already expressed my skepticism today about the “New Rick Perry.” But yes, consolidating conservative management of government might be a plausible message and goal for a Chris Christie or a Jeb Bush (Perry’s claim to that mantle would probably depend on those two being disqualified for heresy). I feel certain that was Mitt Romney’s entire intention in 2012, though, and you see how a Republican primary electorate drove him into the fever swamps; today’s “base” seems significantly angrier and determined to “go big” on all its policy preferences. I actually think Rand Paul would come closest to Obama ‘08 in a theory of change based on upsetting the long-standing partisan patterns of the electorate; I doubt it’s achievable, or that he is nominatable or electable, but he sure talks a good game about reaching out to young people and minorities and independents.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and by next year Republicans will be so fixated on a repudiation of Obama and the Clintons in the same year that victory alone will be enough, and in the Pizza Ranches of Iowa and the church basements of South Carolina the folks will all be pouring over polls to see who’s most electable. But more likely, they’ll want to know how far their prospective nominee is willing to push the party and the country towards the long-awaited Eschaton of economic, fiscal and cultural counter-revolution—awaited since Goldwater’s defeat in 1964—and everyone’s “theory of change” will be a very hot topic.

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.

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