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February 07, 2013 10:27 AM Ditching Palin, Talking Nice Won’t Revive Republicans

By Ezra Klein

Something very interesting is happening in the Republican Party. It’s just not entirely clear what it is, or how far it can go.

Dick Morris and Sarah Palin are out at Fox News. Representative Paul Ryan is helping House Speaker John Boehner talk his caucus down from the debt-ceiling ledge. Senator Marco Rubio is going from one conservative talk-radio host to another to sell them on bipartisan immigration reform. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is telling Republicans to cease being “the stupid party.” Tea Party icon Jim DeMint left the Senate, while FreedomWorks, a Tea Party catalyst, went through a nasty, costly divorce with its figurehead, Dick Armey. Karl Rove’s super-PAC is turning its formidable financial artillery toward helping Republicans win primary elections against Tea Party insurgents.

The Republican establishment is reasserting control. It’s purging some of the hucksters who’d taken the party’s reins —or at least the airtime — in recent years. It’s resisting much of the brinkmanship that marked the last Congress and trying to present a more fearsome, united front against counterproductive strategies favored by the right. All of the major 2016 presidential contenders have made the same political calculation: It’s better to build a reputation as one of the party’s adults than as one of its firebrands.

Normal Progression

“We’ve had a period of this movement at the grass-roots level, call it Tea Party or something else, and it seems to me we’re seeing the normal progression of a grass-roots populist movement,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. “It ran out of control for a few years — that’s why we call it a movement rather than an organization. But it’s receding a bit now. That’s allowing natural leaders to reassert themselves, and institutional forces to reassert themselves.”

Just don’t call this process moderation. The Republican Party isn’t reinventing itself so much as reverting to its previous form. There’s little evidence of a rethinking of core Republican policy ideas. There’s no obvious analogue to the Democratic Leadership Council of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was a moderating influence on the Democrats, or even to the “compassionate conservatism” that George W. Bush promoted to the nation in 2000.

That was particularly evident this week when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave what was billed as a major policy speech at the American Enterprise Institute. With the ambitious title “Making Life Work,” Cantor’s address was thick with policy but thin on new ideas. Then again, that was the point. His aides told Politico that Cantor was “taking policies that have been on the shelf for a while, or back burner, and elevating them.”

The most significant idea was to convert federal education funding to a weighted-student-average model, as officials have done in San Francisco, where schools get more money if they attract poorer students. But the bulk of the ideas were half- measures, and many of them, somewhat ironically, are more fully developed in the Democratic agenda.

Cantor endorsed the Dream Act and green cards for immigrants who earn a master’s degree or doctorate from an American university, but he stopped well short of supporting comprehensive immigration reform. He offered a lengthy encomium to the government’s “appropriate and necessary role” in funding basic medical research, but proposed only that we reinforce it with the paltry sum we’re currently spending on social science research and cut some red tape. The section on tax reform was vague, the big idea on health care was repealing the Affordable Care Act’s tax on medical device manufacturers, and the solution for working parents who want more time at home with their children was to permit them to convert overtime into flextime.

Modest Intentions

It was hard, listening to Cantor’s speech, to imagine the person whose life wasn’t working now but would work after this minimalist agenda became law. The ambitious headline belied a more modest aim: Cantor’s intention, he said at the outset, was to “focus our attention on what lies beyond these fiscal debates.” But the reason Republicans have centered their identity on the deficit is that it’s an issue of sufficient size and scope to excite a political party. It is almost impossible to imagine the party reorganizing itself around Cantor’s menu of appetizers and side courses.

Renewal, however, is a process. After the 2008 election, Republicans went through their anger phase, engendering the rise of the Tea Party. In 2012, there was denial, which resulted in their choosing the least provocative candidate on the theory that if Mitt Romney could avoid offending anyone, voters would instinctively, overwhelmingly reject President Barack Obama. Now we’re in the bargaining phase, with Republicans hoping they can change only their behavior while retaining all their ideas. The question now is whether the Republican Party will be forced into the final step of the process: policy change.

“The Democratic Leadership Council was founded in 1985,” said Kenneth Baer, author of “Reinventing Democrats.” “Their focus initially was on intraparty fights. They thought that the activists took over the party and the elected officials who represent real people weren’t relevant anymore. They weren’t playing a big role at nomination conventions and so forth, and that’s why Democrats kept nominating extreme candidates. It was only after 1988 that they decide they can’t just critique, and instead have to put out an agenda. So they created their think tank, and their first paper said you don’t need to raise the minimum wage, you should do the earned income tax credit. Then they moved onto national service and welfare reform.”

This is exactly what the Republican Party hasn’t done. There are, in corners of the Republican coalition, dissidents calling for a new approach. A surprising number of conservatives have, for instance, begun arguing that Republicans should break up big banks. A few indefatigable thinkers, including Ramesh Ponnuru, continually argue that Republican tax policy should be helping families rather than lowering rates on the rich. A number of important voices in the party, including Ryan, have called for a focus on restoring social mobility, but the concerned rhetoric hasn’t been matched by serious policy. None of these strands of thinking appears close to blossoming into a new, or even slightly different, agenda.

That’s the problem with the Republican establishment reasserting control. They’re still the establishment.

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Ezra Klein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.

Comments

  • Pete Moulton on February 08, 2013 9:53 AM:

    No, I don't expect any change in GOPer policies, no matter how much they may try to improve their behavior. New policies would demand new ideas, and nothing terrifies conservatives more than new ideas.

  • AMS on February 08, 2013 11:32 AM:

    Here's their problem in a nutshell: as Lindsey Graham said, there aren't going to be enough angry white guys for the current iteration of the GOP to stay in business long-term. But short-term, they need every one of those angry white guys' votes to win elections. Keeping that base whipped up with extremist rhetoric is key to getting them out to vote. In the process, the extremist rhetoric turns off millions of more moderate, potential GOP voters. That's the no-win box they're in and I don't see a way for them to get out of it.

  • bluestatedon on February 09, 2013 11:37 AM:

    "I don't see a way for them to get out of it."

    The problem for the GOP is that those who now dominate the party—the toxic mix of evangelical Christianists, Opus Dei Catholics, reactionary Koch-like billionaires, libertarian nuts, overt racists, southern secessionists, and ignorant Social Security recipients waving "keep your gubmit hands off my Social Security" signs—are all impervious to reason and facts. Their worldview directly depends on a fantasyland of projection, paranoia, and religious hysteria. They see themselves as being in possession of the holy truth, which means they don't see any reason to change.

    All this sudden concern on the part of Karl Rove and other members of the GOP's country club wing over the influence of the "tea partiers" is disingenuous in the extreme, since the movement owes its very existence to GOP insiders Dick Armey, Sean Hannity, Fox News, the Koch brothers, and a host of other fellow astroturfers who used the hysteria they created over Obamacare to gain control of the House in 2010. What they didn't anticipate is that the fake movement they created would become Frankenstein's monster, lurching about uncontrollably and eventually scaring the hell out of a good portion of the populace, as it did in 2012. Good luck in getting control of it without burning down

  • hells littlest angel on February 09, 2013 3:39 PM:

    You can turn around a failing automobile manufacturer with new ideas, new policies and a new vision. But you can't do the same with a failing buggy-whip manufacturer.

    What the Republicans have is a buggy-whip factory.

  • Yellowdog on February 11, 2013 6:09 AM:

    Crushing disappointment...with that shot of Senator Rubio there with the link to this article, I thought I was going to get another media piece lavishing praise on the young lawmaker and casting him as the great future of the GOP. What a letdown--barely a sentence about him. Surely disappointing to both his fans--eager for more praise and visibility for their guy--and his more earthbound critics--equally eager to see the Freddie Prinze, Jr. of American politics go wherever former Teen Beat stars go. Charles Pierce opines often on the political media's similarities to the teen magazines that run polls to determine the favorite Jonas Brother and whether Justin Bieber's haircut makes him look older. The Rubio moment is as noteworthy as the John Thune moment was, and the Brian Sandoval moment will be. (Or Lief Garrett and Ralph Macchio)