Evasive Maneuvers

Today’s GOP hasn’t bottomed out, but it still needs to be more open to change than it is. A response to William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck from the right.

By Ramesh Ponnuru

Tagged conservatismRepublicans

William Galston and Elaine Kamarck draw some persuasive analogies between the predicaments of the Democrats of the 1980s and the Republicans of today. [“The New Politics of Evasion,” Issue #30] Then as now, much of the minority party is comforting itself with myths: We can win elections by becoming more ideologically pure; our main political task is to mobilize all the people who already share our views but are too demoralized to vote; control of the House of Representatives means we are not doing all that badly and do not need to change in any way that challenges us.

Some of the details of their case are less persuasive. Is it really a sign of Democrats’ basic centrism that their most liberal candidates lose presidential primaries? Right-wing presidential candidates have long fared just as poorly in the Republican Party: Each of its nominees after 1984 has been at or to the left of the party’s center, having defeated more conservative contenders along the way to the convention.

Also: Should the economic conditions of 2012 really have doomed President Obama’s re-election? There were econometric models that said otherwise, having factored in the growth in jobs in the two years before the election. It may be true that a Republican Party that had taken to heart some of Galston and Kamarck’s warnings about its weakness, and reformed itself accordingly, could have won in 2012, but it is not obviously true that victory would have been assured if only it had been stronger.

Galston and Kamarck mention the public’s and young people’s support for raising taxes on the rich as though it were a recent development, a result of concern over rising inequality. It isn’t. In May 1979, at the height of the anti-tax revolt, a Roper poll found 75 percent of the public thinking that “high-income families” pay “too little in taxes.” Today, Gallup’s version of the question shows there is still majority support for that view; but it has actually dropped to 61 percent. And public concern over inequality should not be exaggerated: Polling generally indicates it’s a low-priority issue for the vast majority of people. Public opinion may not be in sync with the editors of The Wall Street Journal on these issues, but neither has it shifted left.

The authors’ portrayal of young voters’ social liberalism also seems overstated. They cite a recent survey of young voters commissioned by the College Republicans, highlighting their support for same-sex marriage. But the same survey found that 51 percent of young voters believed that abortion—the most politically important and enduring of the social issues—should either be prohibited altogether or prohibited with exceptions for rape, incest, and the mother’s life. And only 35 percent of young voters favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Galston and Kamarck argue that Republicans face an acute fiscal dilemma. They cannot reconcile their commitments to reining in federal debt and keeping taxes from rising without proposing unpopular and unrealistic cuts to entitlement programs. That’s true, but is it significantly worse than the fiscal dilemma for Democrats? Raising taxes on the middle class would not be popular either, and alternative means of reconciling their fiscal commitments do not come readily to mind.

In general, then, Galston and Kamarck understate the receptivity of the public to conservative points of view. In the College Republicans’ survey, young voters said they were more likely to back a candidate that talked about increasing growth and opportunity than to support one that gave speeches about “promoting liberty and reducing the role of government.” That does not mean that such rhetoric “turns off” young voters, as the authors have it: 61 percent of them responded favorably to the shrink-government message. It means, rather, that Republicans would do better among young voters if, instead of presenting smaller government as an end in itself, they explained how it could serve the cause of expanding opportunity. They might do better among older voters, too.

Whether it is possible to devise attractive conservative policies for these times is a matter of debate, and readers of this journal may well be skeptical. But that is what Republicans will have to do: find ways of applying their core principles to changed circumstances. That is, after all, what the reformist Democrats did as well. They did not junk the party’s commitments to social liberalism or to government activism to meet individual needs. A successful Republican revival, too, will depend on identifying what the party, distinctively, has to offer that still speaks to the country. It will surely be more important than creating a focal institution for reform akin to the Democratic Leadership Council, something that Galston and Kamarck assert is crucial in an underargued portion of their essay.

Whether Republicans will actually undertake the task of reform is of course a separate question from whether a reformed party could build a governing majority. Four differences between today’s Republicans and yesterday’s Democrats do not bode well for reformers.

First, Republicans have a history in recent decades of moving right in response to political defeats, and either being rewarded for it or appearing to be. In the aftermath of Watergate, when the Republican National Committee seriously entertained changing the party’s besmirched name, Republicans instead turned to Ronald Reagan—and implicitly rejected the Nixon and Ford Administrations, which had brought the country the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and wage and price controls. The party then won three presidential elections in a row.

In the early 1990s, Republicans under George H.W. Bush suffered the largest four-year drop in a President’s share of the vote since Herbert Hoover. They turned right to Newt Gingrich, repudiated Bush’s tax increase, and won control of the House for the first time in 40 years. And after the bottom dropped out of the party in George W. Bush’s second term, Republicans embraced the Tea Party and recaptured the House.

The story in each of these cases was a bit more complicated than “Republicans moved right, and voters liked it.” And even if there was some truth to that storyline, there are fewer conservative Democrats to court that way these days. My point in recounting this history is that it is now a fairly ingrained habit of Republicans to assume that purification is the way forward. Electoral history had not driven that apparent lesson as deeply into the Democratic mind in the 1980s.

Second, Republicans have been doing better than the Democrats were. As everyone knows, from 1968 onward Democrats lost the popular vote in five of six presidential elections, and then won it in five of the next six. The Democrats’ average share of the two-party vote during their losing streak was 2.8 points lower than the Republicans’ has been. They won an average of 113 electoral votes during that period, while Republicans have won 211. On the one hand, that means public opinion would have to shift less—in response, say, to a dismal second term for Obama—to put the Republicans back on top. On the other, that very fact makes it harder to get Republicans to change.

Third, Republicans already underwent a reform—and it failed. The Galston-Kamarck essay tugs in two different directions on this point. It claims that George W. Bush followed a base strategy. Actually, his “compassionate conservatism” was designed first and foremost to increase the party’s share among Catholics, women, and Hispanics, not least by distancing the GOP from the unpopular anti-statist rigor of the Gingrich Congress. Bush did better in 2004 than 2000, and these groups (and Jews) accounted for a disproportionate share of the increase.

Some of the advice Galston and Kamarck give—reduce the hostility to the federal government, work to attract nonwhites—was tried, to a degree, by Bush. Hence they also say that “George W. Bush was more right than wrong, and the Tea Party is more wrong than right.” But the way recent political history unfolded has made many conservatives inclined to think that Bush-style reform badly damaged the party while Tea Partiers revived it.

Fourth and last, the Republican governance of the 1980s was successful. The public was reasonably happy with its results, and many Democrats came to see that Republicans of the era had a point or two about taxes, inflation, crime, and welfare. By 1992, Bill Clinton could promise to “end welfare as we know it” without losing votes over the issue in the Democratic primaries.

The Democrats of the Obama era have not had such undeniable successes, at least yet; and the public is not happy with how things are going, at least yet. So while Republicans may well have a lot to learn from Democrats about public policy, figuring out what that is will not be easy. As creative as the New Democrats undeniably were, tomorrow’s Republicans may have to be more so.

Galston and Kamarck are right, as well as commendably broad-minded, to say that a Republican Party with the capacity to win elections and govern well is in the public interest. Comparing the Democratic history they recount to the Republican predicament today provides reasons for pessimism that we will soon get one.

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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