Saturday, May 2, 2009

If I Were A Republican Strategist...

I am not, for the record, a Republican strategist. Nevertheless, the political tactician in me can't resist speculating as to what the Grand Old Party should be doing to breathe life back into its floundering partisan brand. Right now they are making three serious errors in judgment:

1) They are attempting to play the "socialism" card against President Obama, which essentially involves stirring up fears that increased government regulation over the economy will ultimately lead to excessive taxes and loss of personal freedoms.
2) They are making a point of defying President Obama at every turn, and are doing so in a transparently knee-jerk manner.
3) They are creating a climate in which moderates are not welcomed within their own party, thereby prompting some (like Senator Arlen Specter) to leave and others (like Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins) to strongly consider abandoning ship.

All three of these mistakes can be traced back to the same cause: The leaders of the Republican Party are using the tactics that brought them to political success during the Age of Reagan, even though that period in our nation's ideo-political history is over.

Before I continue, it first needs to be pointed out that, while the Republican Party currently lacks much-needed centralized leadership, it still has a bevy of influential movers and shakers on whom it falls back for the formulation of policy, ideology, and political strategy, from prominent legislators like Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor to grassroots mouthpieces like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (it is worth noting that their own former presidential nominee, John McCain, is not a prominent standard-bearer for the cause, even though such distinctions are normally devolved upon former presidential candidates who win more than 40% of the popular vote). These men and women all have it within their power to shape the image that the Republican party presents to the American public, and thus positively or negatively affect its political fortunes. Yet as can be seen by what they have said and done, they all still believe that the rules of the Reagan Era continue to apply today.

Just what were those rules? To understand them, one must go all the way back to the beginning of the century - not this one, but the last one, and more specifically, to September 14, 1901, the day Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States.

Prior to Roosevelt's ascent to the presidency, America's ideo-political paradigm had been defined by the Civil War and its aftermath. Our partisan system was based on the residual sectionalism left by that conflict, with the Democratic party being the party of the South and the Republicans being the party of the North; political power was concentrated in the legislative branch, with the executive branch (i.e., the presidency) refraining from shaping policies and left to either agree or disagree with those put forth by Congress; our international philosophy insisted on America's destiny to become a great world power, and thus championed imperialist ventures as a successor to Manifest Destiny and a replacement to the vanishing western frontier; and our socio-economic policies held as a sacred virtue the idea that the government must not interfere with the power of big business, even when that meant that competition was stifled, wages were far too low for many Americans to reasonably afford decent lives, working conditions (urban and rural) were unnecessarily brutal and inhumane, socioeconomic mobility was drastically hindered to those Americans who were not born as white rich males, and in general government policy was directed by wealthy corporations vis-a-vis their contributions to powerful politicians. This period, known as the Gilded Age, existed more or less without break. While Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan had attempted to bring this era of America's political history to a close with his 1896 and 1900 campaigns, his advocacy of economic regulation and anti-imperialism were viewed as so radical that overwhelming media bias against his candidacies doomed them to resounding defeat.

This era in America's political history was brought to a close when President William McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz in September 1901, thereby elevating Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to the Oval Office. Roosevelt proceeded to insist that liberties were as dependent on economic freedom as they were on political freedom, and that those liberties were jeopardized by the growing power of a small aristocracy of wealthy corporations over the body politic. Soon President Roosevelt engaged in a vigorous campaign that fought for consumer protection, workers' rights, fairness in marketing and competition, and most famously "trustbusting" (or the breaking up of corporate monopolies), all of which re-established the president's role as chief policy-maker for the first time since Andrew Jackson and set as precedent the idea that the government had an obligation to interfere in the ongoings of the economy when it viewed individual liberties and the common welfare as being at stake. Indeed, the only aspect of the previous era that Roosevelt continued was the imperialism, which he not only supported but empowered through military ventures that ultimately laid the foundations for America's later emergence as the world's chief superpower.

Roosevelt's example was followed by his two successors, William Taft and Woodrow Wilson, and the period spanning their three administrations was rightly dubbed "The Progressive Era" due both to the left-wing bent of its social and economic policies and to the newly pro-active role assumed by its presidents. Yet the Progressive Era came to an abrupt halt in 1920, when the unpopularity of President Wilson's domestic and foreign policies following World War One (which he had successfully led our nation through) caused Americans to reject everything that progressivism stood for and yearn for what they felt was the simpler time that had preceded it. As such, they voted for conservative Republican Warren Harding over progressive Democrat James Cox by what was then the greatest landslide margin in presidential election history. Harding proceeded to return America to the same laissez-faire social and economic assumptions that had defined our political life before Roosevelt's presidency, with his only modification being an insistence on isolationist rather than imperialistic foreign policies. Due to the beneficial effect the post-war industrial boom had on America's economy, Harding's presidency (as well as that of his successor, Calvin Coolidge) neatly coincided with an unrelated boom in prosperity, causing many to believe that conservatism would once again reign for years after the brief interruption of liberalism during the Roosevelt-Taft-Wilson years.

That belief was shattered in October 1929, when the stock market crash triggered the Great Depression. Although Republicans (including President Herbert Hoover) and even many conservative Democrats wanted to maintain the conservative socio-economic policies of the previous eight years in spite of their inadequacy in dealing with the suffering of the American people, the rise of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932 brought the age of conservatism to an abrupt close. After defeating President Herbert Hoover in a decisive landslide, the new President Roosevelt continued the legacy of his cousin Theodore with a series of policies that increased government power over the economy so as to create millions of jobs, guarantee that all workers would be able to earn enough money to comfortably support themselves and their families without having to put in more than forty hours a week, and regulate large businesses so as to protect employees, consumers, and the general public good against corporate recklessness and cupidity (for an elaboration on his policies, see my article "FDR's New Deal, LBJ's Great society, and Obama's New Foundation").

The ideological era that began with Franklin Roosevelt's presidency lasted for nearly half a century. Although many Republicans tried at first to defeat Roosevelt by blasting his policies as being expensive, inefficient, and a threat to American freedom, they soon realized that most Americans supported interventionist economic policies during times of economic duress, and what's more, tended to suspect individuals who opposed those policies as being motivated more by a desire to preserve their own wealth and its accompanying privileges than by a genuine concern for the freedom and welfare of average Americans. Consequently Republicans who wanted to get elected to the presidency realized that they needed to accept Roosevelt's policies and continue to regulate the rich and powerful (individuals and companies) in order to guarantee economic rights and freedoms to the rest of the country. Hence not only did the Democrats who followed Roosevelt adhere to his basic agenda (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter), but even the Republicans who followed him did likewise (Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford). Indeed, the one Republican presidential nominee (Barry Goldwater) who brazenly defied the Rooseveltian consensus by openly advocating a return to Gilded Age policies was defeated in the single greatest popular landslide in American history, both at that time and to this day.

The Roosevelt era came to an unfortunate end in 1980. That was the year when President Jimmy Carter, politically crippled by a gas crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis, and general administrative ineptitude, was defeated in his bid for re-election by Republican Ronald Reagan. Reagan, like Goldwater before him, was an open advocate of a return to Gilded Age policies. Like Goldwater, this open espousal of far right-wing socio-economic ideas made him very unpopular, so much so that he received only a slight majority in the popular vote (50.7%) in the general election. His good luck came from the fact that President Carter was so unpopular that most Americans feared fear of the known more than fear of the unknown. They gave Carter a record low of 41.0% of the popular vote (the lowest margin received by any sitting president since Herbert Hoover in 1932), while nearly 7% of the voting public - satisfied with neither the bumbling Carter nor the extreme Reagan - voted for third-party candidate John B. Anderson.

Although his election to the presidency thus came with much less fanfare and general esteem than that of Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan and his supporters nevertheless exercised considerable political skill in taking advantage of their newfound power. By the time his presidency was completed, they had effectively repealed or set on the course for elimination most of the social and economic policies that had been implemented during the Progressive Era (begun by Theodore Roosevelt) and the New Deal Era (begun by Franklin Roosevelt), as well as benefited by an economic turnaround (a recession had started during the first months of Reagan's presidency but conveniently ended a year before his bid for re-election) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (due primarily to the reformist policies of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev but credited to Ronald Reagan). The Gilded Age had returned, and Reagan's successors would make a point of continuing in his ideological footsteps, including not only Republicans George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, but also Democrat William J. Clinton.

Quick review: What we have here are three Gilded Ages - one spanning from the end of the Civil War to the rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1865-1901), another from the election of Warren Harding to the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt (1920-1933), and the third beginning with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan (1981) - and two Progressive Eras - one beginning with the incidental ascent of Theodore Roosevelt to the White House (1901-1920) and the other being triggered by the Great Depression and culminating with the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1981). While the beginning of the first Progressive Era occurred virtually by accident, the second one was initiated due to the fact that America's deteriorating economy caused its people to realize that the policies of the Progressive Era were needed to preserve a reasonable standard of living.

A parallel situation has occurred now. When the stock market crashed again in September 2008, and banks began to go bust (just as they did during the Great Depression), Americans reverted back to the economic assumptions they had had before the rise of Ronald Reagan. The decisive election of Barack Obama over John McCain was proof of this, and consequently, Obama's interventionist economic policies and their widespread popular support show that Americans are tired of the Gilded Age. If I were a Republican strategist, it is this basic political reality that I would want all of my party's tactics to reflect. I would go about this in three ways:

1) I would attempt to smother President Obama's popularity in my party's embrace. The last thing I would do is oppose him every step of the way. Not only would that make us look like rabid partisans whose hatred of the president outweighs our concern for the people, it would put us in a lose-lose situation when it comes to the ultimate fate of the economy - should it improve, Obama would be in a position to claim sole credit, and should it fail, he could easily blame us by citing our obstructionism as its cause. On the other hand, providing Obama with support for his agenda would put us in a political win-win. Should his policies succeed, we would be able to claim joint credit and thus deprive him of much of the political capital that would normally go to a president for pulling off his agenda, and then focus on whatever errors he had made as president during the subsequent re-election campaign (with attention now being previously taken off of the economy). Should his policies fail, we could rely on the cynical but accurate fact that in a two-party system, the failures of one party always benefit the other. Even though we could be jointly blamed for its lack of success, most of that burden would ultimately fall on the president's shoulders, and in their anger at him people would naturally turn to the only major opposition party for an alternative, even though that party had supported him along the way.

2) I would drop the emphasis on cultural conservatism. The origin of the culture wars can be traced back to the late-sixties and early-seventies, when the assault on traditional religious and social values as posed by the hippies and other countercultural movements caused a backlash among millions of Americans who still embraced those "old-fashioned" values. By injecting religion and nationalism into American political discourse, as well as focusing on controversial issues such as abortion rights, gay marriage, school prayer, flag burning, the teaching of creationism, public funding of private religious schools, and so on, cultural conservatives were able to brilliantly rally these Americans to the Republican banner by depicting the Democratic party (and most notably its least successful recent presidential candidate, George McGovern) as embodying the antithesis of celebrated Christian, pro-American values. This was a process that began not with Ronald Reagan in 1980, but with Richard Nixon in 1972, during his extraordinarily successful re-election campaign against the aforementioned hapless George McGovern. Unlike Nixon, however (who remained an economic liberal even as he pushed the party to the cultural right), Reagan synthesized cultural conservatism with Gilded Age social and economic policies, thus creating the successful Republican political coalition that lasted from 1981 until 2008. Yet just as the economic assumptions of the conservative era no longer apply, so too is the culture war increasingly moot. Whereas the death of economic conservatism was sudden, however, the death of the culture wars has been more gradual. When Nixon used it to win a landslide victory over McGovern in 1972, the hippie movement was still in full throttle and most Americans had not adjusted themselves to the newly-espoused value system. As time wore on, however, the hippies faded away, and many of the values they preached on everything from sex, morality, and religion to drugs, the law, and the nature of patriotism have become commonly accepted. Thus while a vocal minority of Americans still wishes to fight the reactionary battle that began in the late 1960s, most Americans are not only tired of such wars, but accepting of the very values that cultural conservatives vehemently oppose. Because cultural conservatives (from anti-abortion groups to the Moral Majority and the Christian Right) still comprise a substantial portion of the Republican base, it is easy for them to nominate a candidate for that party; because outside of the Republican base, however, these individuals represent an ever-dwindling minority of the American public, candidates who represent that base are increasingly doomed to defeat in presidential elections and other major political contests.

3) So without economic and cultural conservatism, what should the party focus on? There are several avenues they could pursue, but for spatial reasons I will focus only on the top three:
   - Isolationism: Although Barack Obama has proven far less bellicose than George W. Bush, he still adheres to the interventionist philosophy that has marked American foreign policy for more than a century. The Ron Paul fad of early 2008 was in large part a reaction against these ideas, on both moral and practical grounds. While it would be a mistake for Republicans to adopt Paul's pro-Gilded Age economic ideas (wherein the difference between himself and Ronald Reagan is minimal), there is fodder in his opposition to the finanical and human cost of America's military-industrial complex and the wars they wage.
    - Reform: Now that Democrats are very decisively the majority party, they are bound to get themselves mired in the same squalid scandals that afflict virtually any political party once its hands are firm enough on the reins of power. While Americans may be divided on most things, few issues unify them as quickly and decisively as that of government reform, or in the parlance of political professionals, "throwing the crooks out".
    - Charisma: This is not an issue, but it is as solid a way to arrive at power as any that are out there. Barack Obama's considerable personal appeal was by no means insignificant in his successful campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination and then ultimately the presidency. If Republicans can find a candidate in their own ranks who possesses similar appeal, their electoral chances in the future will greatly improve. It is difficult to describe just what this appeal actually is - while words for it exist ("gravitas" and "charisma" come to mind), its defining features are very intangible. That said, it is easy to spot it when it's there, and it can exist in individuals regardless of their political ideology.

Incidentally, the three suggestions I just made are not original to myself. After twenty years of opposing Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic party without success, Republicans in 1952 finally struck gold by nominating Dwight David Eisenhower for the presidency. A charismatic general widely revered for winning the European front during the Second World War, "Ike" Eisenhower had gravitas (his military career and heroism) and charisma (his amiable demeanor), and opposed the twenty years of Democratic rule not on the grounds of social or economic policy, but due to a military quagmire (the Korean War) and government corruption (a variety of petty scandals in the incumbent administration of President Harry Truman).

Republicans would be well-advised to follow Ike's example, or else they may suffer through another twenty-year period of Democratic rule. Instead, they seem to be following the example of predecessors such as Herbert Hoover and the American Liberty League (I wrote about them in my article regarding the Tea Party protesters) by failing to recognize that their Gilded Age is over and a new one has begun. The conservatives of FDR's time kept acting like they could win elections by following the Harding model, and until they moved on, they kept losing. The conservatives of Obama's time are acting like they can win elections by following the Reagan model, and until they move on, they will keep losing.

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