Pandora's Box Already Open
Today is the opening of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Expect lots of 2012 Presidential candidates to stop by and kiss the rings of the activists - there's even a straw poll - along with thundering denunciations of the socialist terrorist Obama. However, there is, via John Cole, at least one Republican strategist who understands that the party is headed for oblivion.
I just got off the phone with a very plugged-in Republican strategist who told me that Republican reaction to President Obama’s speech, which the party will roll out in the next few days, will mark the beginning of a new GOP approach to opposing the president’s initiatives. (No, Bobby Jindal’s ineffective response was not part of that new approach—everyone seems a little embarrassed about that.) The Republican leadership in the House has concluded that in the stimulus debate, the GOP succeeded in dominating a number of news cycles but failed to score any points on actual policy. That, the leaders believe, has got to change.
“You’re seeing a major doctrinal shift in how Republicans are going to focus all these debates,” the strategist told me. “The key is to focus on winning the issue as opposed to winning the political moment. If you win the issue, people will think you are ready to govern.”
I asked him to elaborate a little. “With the political moment, it’s how can you find the one thing that gives you the momentary upper hand in terms of the coverage for the next six hours—as opposed to engaging the electorate in creating a structural change in their opinion on which party is better able to handle an issue.”
During the stimulus debate, the strategist argued, Republicans had an actual alternative but were unable to direct much attention to it—in part because they were focusing so much of their rhetoric on the massive and unnecessary spending in the bill. The debate became a question of an up-or-down decision on the Obama/Democratic plan—not a choice between the Obama/Democratic plan and a Republican plan. “The coverage of the stimulus bill focused on the difference between the House and Senate versions,” the strategist told me, “which were basically two sides of the same coin.” The Republican role was limited to a) saying no to the Obama/Democratic bill, and b) having three moderates in the Senate approve of the bill as long as it offered a little less than what Democrats proposed. The idea that Republicans, mostly in the House, had an actual full-scale alternative, was lost. “On the Sunday talk shows, right after it passed, find me one person who mentioned the Republican alternative,” the strategist said.
This is mostly true, but as Cole says, they actually had no alternative. It was the same "tax cuts fix everything" logic that has brought us to where we are.
However, I question the ability to actually change their strategy at this point. They have pretty much banked on intellectual dishonesty and stunts for close to a decade. That's what's ATTRACTED what's left of their followers. The activist base is throwing a Boston Tea Party at the White House tomorrow, headlined by Joe the Plumber. Sorry, but that's the GOP these days. It's a party that thinks it's clever calling an $800 billion dollar stimulus package with $300 billion in tax cuts a trillion dollar spending bill because they've just now gotten around to factoring in interest on the debt, which wasn't a problem when George Bush was driving up debts faster than any President in history. It's a party that pores over testimony by government officials to make sure 9/11 is mentioned. That's the sorry state of the Republican Party. And one strategist realizing that winning the news cycle does not win much of anything is nice, but not likely to change much.
I think Bill Clinton, who knows a thing or two about beating Republicans, actually offers some good advice.
Their only shot to get back in this debate is to look like they’re willing to cooperate with him now, and then to develop alternative ideas. Newt Gingrich even recognized that, that’s why he ran on that Contract with America. It’s just that he still had a country which was still vulnerable to the appeals of the Republican right. [People are] just not there anymore.
The Independents and the Democrats have all moved with the President. And the Republicans have isolated themselves by having predictable, tired old objections which are not supportable by the facts…
They should give him some more votes now in the Congress and develop an alternative plan for the future that’s different, and say, “We’re all in a terrible crisis now, we’ll help him get through the emergency, but we don’t agree with his long term approach.” That I think would be a good strategy for them [...]
Most Americans … rejected the way [Republicans] think. They basically said, look we’ve been around this track twice now, and both times ended in economic calamity. The first time produced my election, the second time was worse, and produced President Obama’s. And now, unlike the first time, they have now lost their natural cultural advantage, and the country thinks more like we do…
I know we always need two parties, but they both need to be arguing within a real-world context that’s relevant to America’s present and future. And these guys just haven’t yet caught up.
Until they do, it's going to be a long road for Republicans.