Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Fingerpointing Begins

Republicans were taking shots at each other before the election began, but that was tempered by the hope that they wouldn't fare that poorly in the mid-terms. Now that it's been shown that such hope was misplaced, the recriminations and re-examination begin in earnest:
"We ought to just mend our wounds, bury our dead, learn from our mistakes and move on," said GOP lobbyist Ed Rogers. "But first we're going to have go through this. Look, bad policy and bad politics makes for bad elections."

The common theme of the Recriminatathon is that the party lost its way after seizing control of Congress in 1994, focusing on power and perks instead of principles. But behind all the maneuvering, posturing and backstabbing lingered a serious debate over the party's future, and what those principles should be. It's a familiar argument between confrontation and compromise: appealing to base voters on the right or independents in the middle.

The moderate Republican Main Street Partnership fired its first salvo on election night, unleashing a news release titled "Far Right Solely Responsible for Democratic Gains"..."This election isn't a repudiation of the GOP," [Partnership Director Sarah] Chamberlain said. "It's a repudiation of a handful of zealots, and a reminder that you can't build a majority party without securing the middle of the American electorate."
"Republicans became the party of government," said conservative activist Richard Viguerie. "With earmarks, with spending, with the prescription drug benefit, with the Foley case, it became clear that they would spend anything and do anything to hold on to power."

To Viguerie, the solution is clear: Cut spending, shrink government and lead from the right on abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues.

So which approach is correct? As the article points out at the end though, even the moderate wing of the Republican Party suffered considerable losses on Tuesday. But there's a simple explanation for that; many voters were simply so fed up with the GOP that they were going to vote anti-Republican no matter what the circumstances, and in areas which were already fairly well divided between liberals and conservatives, that would make all the difference in the world. Whatever strategy the Republicans want to try, the prior strategy of being beholden to a stubborn President surrounded by yes-men, who is worshiped by a zealous chorus of right-wing bloggers and pundits who accuse reporters of treason, brand liberals as traitors, and make no accommodations to reality, did not work. That's what cost them at the polls.

Viguerie though, is flat-out wrong. As to cutting taxes/shrinking government, Republicans have demonstrated that they will not do that once they're in power. In fact, it's entirely possible that their "shrink government" approach is exactly what led to an out-of-control deficit; they cut taxes to reap political gain, but were unwilling to suck it up and cut spending too because that would cost them at the polls (because Americans are not willing to see the social safety net dismantled, whatever the likes of Pat Toomey and Grover Norquist believe.) Talk like Viguerie's indicates that the small-government wing of the Republican Party has not yet learned that lesson.

Secondly, "leading from the right" is exactly what divided the American public and gave rise to charges that the Republicans desire only to pander to their base. That approach led to Frist opining on the medical condition of Terry Schiavo from the Senate floor, set themselves up for charges of hypocrisy for bashing gays while gays work in their party, attack abortion-an institution supported broadly by a majority of Americans, and lost them Hispanic and other minority votes as they pandered to the bigots and nativists in their party.

This approach was a recipe for a disaster waiting to happen, and the only reason Republicans got away with it for so long is because of 9/11. Orwell explained the strategy well in 1984, but it's been borrowed by political leaders throughout human history: find an enemy to focus everyone's attention on, and you can get away with all sorts of shenanigans at home. But the exit polls quite clearly showed that the voter's fear of terrorism was wearing off, and the voter quite rightly realized that while they were being told to watch out for terrorists, the Republican party had grabbed the steering wheel and was in the process of driving the car over the cliff.

Though Democrats did not win the midterms by making a major shift to the right as party, they certainly won because they offset the social extremism, corruption and ineptitude of the Republican party. Democrats didn't need to shift right to beat the Republican party, because the Republican party had been hijacked by extremists and the Rovian strategy of divide and conquer. No, it is Republicans who need to shift back to the center, and abandon incoherent and inconsistent economic policies, downplay the authority of extremists in their party, and abandon the approach of pandering to the base.

Now I'm usually pretty dismissive of advice from the right on what Democrats need to do to win; it's hard to trust the advisor whose motives (help Republicans win) are completely opposed to mine. So if nobody on the right wants to listen to anybody on the left on how to win, that's fine, because it's okay if the right wants to keep on losing for awhile. But believe it or not, I don't favor a permanent Democratic lock on power. Both parties need to be responsive to the interests of their respective constituencies, because no one party can represent the broad diversity of the American voters' political opinions, and the Republicans should act as a check on Democrats in power, just as Democrats should act as a check on Republicans in power.

So Republicans, listen to your moderates. Your exile from power in Congress will be shorter if you do.

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