Which Direction for Republicans?

While Republicans dreamed of a permanent majority, it was inevitable that they would lose power. Demographics were against them and, perhaps more importantly, the general trend of history has been towards greater freedom as opposed to the authoritarian views of the right. The Republicans’ extremist views on economic and social issues are being rejected, especially by the young. The debate over the future for Republicans be seen in two recent posts from David Frum and Ross Douthat.

Frum sees Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber as the base of the GOP but realizes that this is not enough to achieve a majority. He notes that George Bush won the working class by twenty-three points but, “This year, an economically squeezed Joe did not come through for the GOP.” He doesn’t realize that this is because the policies of the GOP did not come through for the working class. They are limited to the support of those like Joe the Plumber who believe Republican rhetoric without realizing how harmful Republican policies are to them.

Frum considers Joe the Plumber to be the future of the party but he is willing to move away from Sarah Palin to attempt to attract new voters:

A generation ago, Republicans dominated among college graduates. In 1984 and 1988, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won states like California, Pennsylvania and Connecticut – states that have been “blue” for a generation. (America’s least educated state, West Virginia, went for Michael Dukakis in 1988.)

Those days are long gone. Since 1988, Democrats have become more conservative on economics – and Republicans have become more conservative on social issues.

College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats – but that their values are under threat from Republicans. And there are more and more of these college-educated Americans all the time.

So the question for the GOP is: Will it pursue them? To do so will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. And it will involve potentially even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues. That’s a future that leaves little room for Sarah Palin – but the only hope for a Republican recovery.

This is the key problem for Republicans. A growing portion of the population is economically conservative and socially liberal. As Frum points out, Democrats have become more conservative on economic issues and Republicans have become more conservative on social issues. Republicans have also moved further to the right on economic matters so that their policies not only do not help Joe the Plumber but are also not beneficial for most college graduates. Besides, the Democrats under Barack Obama are already receiving the votes of those who are socially liberal and economically conservative. While I hope that the Republicans do become more moderate on social issues they may have already lost the support of the young due to their recent move to the extreme right. Democrats filled the vacuum the Republicans left when they moved to the far right.

Frum’s ideas regarding giving up conservative social views are unlikely to be accepted by many conservatives, especially as many Republicans think that the GOP lost because of the moderates.

Ross Douthat takes a different view from Frum:

If you follow the model Frum recommends in his column, on the other hand – call it “upper-middle reformism” – and pitch your message to the Obama-voting, ex-Rockefeller Republicans making $150,000 a year, then you’re talking to a “post-material” group of people who worry less about day-to-day economic concerns and more about causes like global warming – making Frum’s vision of a pro-choice, pro-carbon tax GOP a more plausible fit. (Frum has also proposed a fat tax, which is likewise something that seems most likely to appeal to the healthy, wealthy voters at the upper tail of the income and education distribution.)

Again, I don’t think this is a completely either/or matter for the GOP. A party that restores its reputation for competence and policy seriousness, as the Republicans desperately need to do, will win back voters across the income and educational spectrum, no matter what specific positions it takes. But insofar as there’s a choice to be made, I think building a coalition of social conservatives and social moderates from the middle of the income and education distribution makes much more political sense than trying to hold together a coalition of social conservatives from the middle of the distribution and social liberals from the upper end. Joe the Plumber and Joe the Office-Park Employee make much more plausible political bedfellows than Joe the Plumber and Joseph the Hedge Fund Guy.

Restoring a reputation for competence and policy seriousness is important for the Republicans to recover but this is a minimum expectation from any party. Douthat is right about the difficulties in rebuilding a coalition with college educated social liberals as this will only be possible if the Republicans are willing to give up their extremist views on social issues. However Douthat would face similar problems even in building a coalition of social conservatives and social moderates considering how extreme the Republicans in the GOP have become.

Andrew Sullivan disagrees with Douthat in briefly stating, “I don’t think political programs should emerge from the shape of political coalitions.” Maybe the Republican need to come up with some good ideas (along with competence and policy seriousness), and then see which groups they are attractive to.

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2 Comments

  1. 1
    Christopher Wiseman says:

    I do indeed think that decisive wedge issues should be set to the side in the short term and Republican’s need to realize that true Conservatism offers not only responsible solutions going beyond quick fixes, but solutions that sell themselves across the board.  I don’t think there is one Conservative that subscribed to the Goldwater/Reagan way of thinking that would ever have supported the “neo-CON” vision of borrow and spend policies. 

    The solution is not to move left or focus on the middle or take a huge swing to the right, the solution is an American solution that embraces the idealism of the left and tempers it with the pragmatism that true Conservatism offers.

    http://politicalthirdrail.wordpress.com

  2. 2
    Rob in Michigan says:

    The solution is not to move left or focus on the middle or take a huge swing to the right, the solution is an American solution that embraces the idealism of the left and tempers it with the pragmatism that true Conservatism offers.

    Christopher,

      For the love of all mercy, please copy and paste your response in as many conservative/right/GOP blogs as you possibly can. That, as a moderate Independent, is exactly what I am looking for from Republicans in order to spread my vote around (I’ve never voted for one party across the board). I, and many other non-ideologues in the middle, have been horrified by the Religious Right, angry at ‘trickle-down economics that only added another zero to CEO’s bonus checks’, and disgusted by the policy of smears over substance debates. Rove was the beginning of the death knell for the GOP… the nation desperately needs it to rebuild into a version of its former, pragmatic self to keep the Democrats in check. The only thing I’d disagree with you on is decisive wedge issues should be set to the side in the short term. I think it should be put aside permanently. The GOP needs to focus entirely on conservative governance and economic theory, with some modification (do the exact opposite of everything Bush/Cheney did the last 8 years).

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