Late last week an internal Republican National Committee memo leaked out which shows that at least the Republican leadership acknowledges a problem I have been writing about for a while–the lack of ideas being promoted by the party. As Steve Benen points out, admitting you have a problem is the first step towards recovery. The memo states:
Republicans have grown accustomed to having our party recognized as the “Party of Ideas,” but we must acknowledge that many Americans today believe the party is stale and does not deserve that label. This is not a critique of our principles of a strong national defense, growth-focused economics, constitutionally-limited government, and a defense of traditional values. Rather, it is a reflection that we have not used our principles to provide solutions to the kitchen table concerns of middle-class America.
The Republicans lost because the Democrats were felt to have the better ideas on virtually all issues by a majority of Americans. Republicans found in 2008 that they could no longer win by relying on distorting the views of their opponents and raising meaningless attacks. False claims that Obama planned to redistribute the wealth in a Marxist sense or planned a government takeover of health care no longer fooled the voters. Attacks based upon discredited attacks such as Obama’s connections to William Ayers and Reverend Wright, and appeals to anti-intellectualism from Sarah Palin, were no longer effective. Republicans have become experts at raising McCarthyist style attacks but in the process began to ignore providing actual reasons to vote for them.
After the election The Economist summed up this problem by referring to the Republicans as a Ship of Fools. The economic collapse strengthened the conventional wisdom that the Democratic Party is stronger on economic issues, making most other issues irrelevant in the 2008 election. Even if other issues were considered, they did not work for the Republicans. At one time the Republicans were felt to be stronger on advocating a sound foreign policy. Now Republicans are the party advocating a reckless foreign policy while Democrats have taken the center. Republican denial of science and support for the social policies of the religious right are costing them the support of young voters as well as many affluent and educated Americans who have voted Republican in the past. Many voters no longer see the Republicans as either the party of ideas or of values, and are now voting Democratic based upon both values and self-interest.
The problem for the Republicans is not only that they lack ideas but that they have the wrong ideas. For years the Republican establishment took advantage of votes from the religious right but privately referred to them as the nuts. Now “the nuts” appear to control the party. For a moment it appeared that the Republicans might be turning towards moderation in nominating John McCain, but instead McCain increasingly adopted the positions of the extremists in the party. Republican voters see Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee as their two preferred choices for 2012. Red State has announced a war against Republicans who have not supported Palin. David Frum might be willing to abandon Sarah Palin, but still sees the mindset of Joe the Plumber as the future of the GOP.
The Republicans now face the dilemma that their strongest support comes from the religious right but these views will probably prevent them from being a majority party in states outside of the deep south and a handful of sparsely populated western states. A growing number of principled conservatives and libertarians who do not accept the views of the religious right are increasingly supporting Democratic candidates. There continue to be supporters of other ideas in the part, but their role is becoming increasingly trivial. William Kristol has recently admitted that conservative talk of small government has little relationship to the reality of Republican rule. Perhaps now that they don’t feel obligated to back the policies of George Bush, more Republicans will be consistent in backing civil liberties and restrictions upon the power of government.
It is hard to see any fate for the Republicans other than going the way of the Whigs if they don’t open themselves up to modern thought. A party which includes members who believe in creationism has no place in the twenty-first century. There have been some voices in the Republican Party which has resisted its current extremist tendencies. Colin Powell recently warned Republicans against listening to Rush Limbaugh. It is also necessary for them to reject the entire fantasy world of conservative talk radio. In recent weeks I’ve also note that some Republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Christine Todd Whitman, along with columnists such as Kathleen Parker, have taken a more moderate stand than is common in the Republican Party, but I’ve also noted how resistant many Republicans are to moderating their views.
The mind set of the religious right, and why they are unlikely to moderate their views, can be seen in this response to my writings supporting modernization of Republican viewsin this response by Robert Stacy McCain at The American Spectator:
The real question isn’t the influence of Dobson, but rather the influence of God, and if you’re waiting for God to moderate his views, I suspect you’ll be waiting a long time.
I discussed the absurdity of this argument, along with the importance of a secular government as wisely advocated by the Founding Fathers, in this post last week. This concept is an important part of our heritage, and is necessary to allow all to worship, or not worship, as they choose. While this view is clear in the writings of the Founding Fathers, along with many court decisions, the religious right has been promoting a revisionist history which denies this. Although many of the Founding Fathers were Deists, who had a radically different view of the role of God in human affairs compared to Christianity, many Republicans, including the supposedly moderate John McCain, also falsely claim that the United States was founded as a Christian country.
As I’ve discussed in many previous posts, such as here, religious beliefs do not provide sufficient justification under our system of government for public policy decisions. I’ve also noted that Barack Obama has expressed similar views. This presents the fundamental difference in belief between supporters of modernity and the religious right. The real issue is not one of life style as many liberals live an essentially conservative life style, but a question of whether one believes the power of government should be used to impose life style choices upon others.
As Republicans search for ideas they might look back to promises of Ronald Reagan to get government off our backs. Instead of applying this solely to allowing business to go unregulated, they must reconsider their views on reproductive rights, embryonic stem cell research, end of life decisions as in the Terri Schiavo case, same-sex marriage, and other issues where personal morality should not be regulated by government. Barry Goldwater rejected the religious right and in his later years considered himself a liberal. If Republicans want to provide a viable alternateve to the Democratic Party, the Republicans should follow Barry Goldwater’s lead on this matter and reject the influence of the religious right. They cannot develop and promote good ideas until they face reality and reject the bad ideas which have destroyed their party.