While the political world is consumed with Syria—and the close question of whether Barack Obama’s muddled case for intervention is bolstered by worries about the institutional damage to the presidency that would come from a “no” vote on his Syrian resolution—a perceptive piece by two Democrats, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, on the travails of the Republican Party, deserves a serious read. In their essay “How to Save the Republican Party, Courtesy of Two Democrats”, Galston and Kamarck outline Republican misconceptions about the electoral environment that as they point out, almost identically mirror what pre-Clintonian Democrats surmised about their party on the heels of successive presidential losses: (1) faith that there is a non-voting segment of the electorate that would be energized by a move toward an undiluted, ideologically pure version of the party’s ideological message and (2) that a solid majority in the House of Representatives and a majority of governorships are proof of an underlying electoral strength that will eventually reassert itself at the presidential level.
Anyone who has perused this site can guess that I am aligned with much of the Galston/Kamarck critique, and that I view what they call the “hyper-individualistic libertarianism” that is dominant in conservative grassroots circles as a liability for Republican aspirations to raise their vote shares with minorities, under 35 professional women, and white working class voters: in fact it is a liability about equal to the constraints interest group liberalism posed to eighties era Democrats trying to resurrect their appeal to southern moderates, white ethnics, and suburban professionals in the aftermath of Reagan.
But while Galston and Kamarck are singing off the right hymnal, I’ll advance one huge cautionary note that partly explains why conservative reform still struggles to resonate with GOP activists and primary voters. Any advocate of the kind of conservative evolution I would favor has to come to grips with an intrinsic contrast between the respective policy successes of Reagan Republicans (more muted than memory usually serves) and Obama Democrats (more sweeping than either camp prefers to acknowledge).
A generation ago, the Reagan era managed to rewrite one dramatic element of the domestic policy framework—namely, a sizable reduction in marginal tax rates—but to an extent that was downplayed then and obscured now, that framework was undisturbed in most other aspects. Discretionary spending was not sharply diminished; the entitlement structure was solidified; legal policy was turned rightward at the edges, but not in a manner that criminalized abortions or undermined affirmative action; and the regulatory footprint was mostly indistinguishable in 1989 from what it was in 1981.
In other words, the Democratic repositioning project happened during a time when Democrats had lost surprisingly little substantive ground and had survived an ideologically hostile, politically adept presidency with most of their laundry list still intact; in fact, with most of their primary ideological aims rising to the status of a defacto national consensus. And as a result, Bill Clinton’s flexibility as a campaigner was enhanced by the fact that post Reagan liberals had considerable room to compromise, or to shift toward the center, without shattering their ideal of what government should look like.
Compare the landscape facing Republicans today. For libertarian minded conservatives, Obamacare seems not a singular breakthrough akin to the Reagan rate cuts, but a template for a more bureaucratic, regulation soaked playing field whose reach extends from the size of premiums and the amount of deductibles; to the range of choice employees and patients enjoy; to the continuing incentives companies have to grow or shrink; to say nothing of a legitimized mandate for one kind of consumer transaction, health insurance, that could be stretched into other contexts in some indefinite future. For social conservatives, the elite consensus around same sex marriage and the Democratic Party’s transition from a party discomfited by abortion to a party that no longer views it is as shrewd politics to even proclaim that the procedure should be rare are more decisive routs that anything two Reagan terms accomplished on the social values front in its eight years.
So, as a consequence, any Republican contender for federal office has to confront a partisan base that reasonably believes that most of its agenda has already been defeated. If, in some speculative scenario, late eighties Democrats had been forced to contend with, say, the repeal of Roe v. Wade and the overturning of racial preferences, if Newt Gingrich’s first draft of welfare reform had transpired on Reagan’s watch, it is not hard to imagine that intransigence and rhetorical belligerence might have been just as much as feature of post Reagan liberalism as Tea Party fervor and government shutdown fantasies are on today’s right. And if it had, even a politician of Clinton’s gifts would have been hard pressed to make a case that Democrats who had yielded considerable territory should keep on yielding.
To be sure, Clinton and his DLC coterie faced their share of challenges to their progressive credentials, in a manner that recalls the diatribes against Chris Christie and the jeers hurled at Marco Rubio during the Koch Brothers’ recent policy forum. But as reform minded tacticians in the GOP are learning, those jabs are harder and rougher when they come from a base that has a plausible sense that it is already backed into a corner.