It's navel gazing season again, as it is in the wake of every general election. Both sides are analyzing the results of this month's electoral festivities, from very different perspectives.
The Dems are relieved and impatient to get on with it, proclaiming a new American demographic that, they believe, portends a "blue" future for the nation. They are rallying behind the Administration, to the point of fearlessly facing the Fiscal Cliff. They are unlikely in the short run to do more than tinker with a winning formula. As conservative columnist Ross Douthat puts it: "Liberals look at the Obama majority and see a coalition bound together by enlightened values reason rather than superstition, tolerance rather than bigotry, equality rather than hierarchy. But it's just as easy to see a coalition created by social disintegration and unified by economic fear." weblink: Web Link A structuralist, he sees a serious long term threat in growing reliance on the welfare state, especially to the extent that it replaces local institutions of charity and good works. It's an interesting perspective, and one that probably ought to receive a full column's attention at some point.
To the limited extent that the Dems are in a conciliatory mood, they will nod across the aisle to acknowledge that loophole eradication may have a role in tax reform, and that senior entitlement spending will require further attention. The latter might include the GOP idea of maintaining current benefits for those who now rely on them, but making changes that lower expectations among future recipients, consistent with our collective ability to 'pay it forward.'
The much more interesting stuff is coming from the GOP's teeth-gnashing something that every disappointed partisan group does as part of its morning-after regrets. The process is important, because the Two-Party system relies on governance via alternative ideas. Recently, the competition has been between those who would govern, and those who want to wound government into inaction ("Starve the beast!"). A positive conservative ideology would be a welcome development, allowing for reasoned debates that perhaps won't so quickly devolve into kill-the-messenger caricaturing of the respective Oppositions. (A guy can hope, can't he?)
Setting aside Mr. Romney's bitter offering of sour grapes that only confirmed his earlier expressions of tunnel vision, several others have leapt into the fray, hoping to help the Party reframe its essence from a leadership position.
First in the ring has been former Bush speechwriter ("Axis of Evil") David Frum, with an e-book titled "Why Romney Lost, and what the GOP Can Do About It." It is mostly a diagnosis of the former, laying blame on ideological Tea Party zeal, and a failure to address the crises of the middle class. Interestingly, he also suggests that the GOP has been victim of conservatism's evident successes:
"To lament that our freedoms are in peril," he writes, "is to reverse the truth. In most ways, Americans of the 2010s are much freer than the Americans of fifty years ago. … If they manage an airline, a trucking company, a brokerage house, and oil or gas well, a railroad or a bank, they may set their own prices without the prior approval of a government regulator. No longer are rules passed restricting how much farmers may grow. Americans' tax rates have dropped far lower than they were a half-century ago. They top out at 35%...nowhere near the 91% maximum of 1962."
For the future, "the road to renewal begins with this formula: 21st Century conservatism must become economically inclusive, environmentally responsible, culturally modern and intellectually credible." Specifically, economic policies must promote free market principles to the benefit of all, not just the donor base. Environmental threats are real and rising, and must be addressed. The Party must avoid being perceived as anti-female (ultrasounds, unequal pay), immigrant (AZ model) and gay (nuptials), toning down its rhetoric in those regards, at minimum. As to intellectual credibility, he urges rejection of those who regard politics as warfare, and their opponents as enemies. Take THAT, Rush (and a few readers hereabouts, as well).
Trouble is, there's already a Party that stands for those things, having adopted relatively free market approaches climate change regulation and universal health care; that is pro-women, Latino and gay rights, and is perceived as focused on the many tribulations of the middle class. My sense is that larger distinctions could be found in matters of Defense spending, fiscal priorities and hawkish foreign policy, but it is seductive to revel in the prospect of a federal government so much less polarized and able to bridge narrower philosophical gaps.
The 30 Republican Governors also recently met, and weighed-in on the future. Chris Christie also seemed to downplay ideology in favor of competence and constituent service that the GOP will be fine if it focuses on those areas, which are distinctly the realm of Governors not yet tarred with the DC brush. Bobby Jindal, for his part, was more blunt than Frum. "We've got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything," Jindal told POLITICO. "We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys."
"It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments enough of that," Jindal said. "We've also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people." He added: "Simply being the anti-Obama party didn't work. You can't beat something with nothing. The reality is we have to be a party of solutions and not just bumper-sticker slogans, but real detailed policy solutions."
He was also critical of what he called "donor-driven fiscal policies," including both tax fairness issues and regulation of financial practices. He would not seek to change the GOP's pro-life and same-sex marriage agendas, but he would "soften the tone" and de-emphasize those issues, presumably to hang onto the social conservative/evangelicals, without putting forth more effort than minimum necessary for retention. weblink: Web Link
These Republicans represent a more pragmatic, less ideological strain of Conservatism; the Tea Party and Evangelical ideologues are only now beginning to unwrap themselves from their apocalyptic fetal positions. They can continue to claim credit for the Republican House majority, but not escape blame for losing Senate and White House opportunities aplenty.
It remains to be seen whether the Pragmatics will reclaim the Grand Old Party, and it will take time to thrash-out the specific policy re-imaginings being called-for. It's a healthy thing that these meditations are underway. I think they will be driven by the nagging suspicion that this year's elections were lost by the GOP, more than that the Dems won them. Further, it's probably unhealthy to be as sure of Anything as the GOP seemed to be of most things. If the outcome of these internal meditations drags the GOP toward The Middle, they will be a future force to be reckoned-with. Even better for the Republic, they will be capable of participating in actual governance.
That will be something for which we can all give thanks.