National political news from both liberal and conservative sources these days is dominated by coverage of the implosion of the Republican Party. To the delight of ‘told you so’ Democrats and the disbelief of bewildered conservatives, the GOP seems bent on self-destruction at a time when one would think there is plenty of political fodder for the cannons.
The problem is that the party has no cohesive message, no figure with any credibility to voice effective opposition to the newly-elected Democratic president and his federal stimulus package and massive bank and auto industry bailouts. According to a March Pew Research Center poll, less than half of Americans (48 percent) think that pouring billions of dollars into failing banks is the right thing to do and 63 percent are against doing the same for the auto industry. Isn’t it the GOP’s job to hammer the Democrats on this point?
Instead, it seems the Republicans have given up and are setting their sights on 2012 with shaky public relations campaigns aimed at rebranding the party and make it once again appealing to moderates. Apparently not everybody is on board.
One of many important lessons of the catastrophic reign of Bush 43, is the need for a strong two-party system. Such one-sided political dominance by any party is reason for concern. Look no further than the first four years of the Bush Administration in comparison to the first half of the Clinton Administration and you see what I mean. Though it deserved its loss in the last election, it is disturbing to see the Republican Party repeatedly shoot itself in the foot with every passing day.
Last week’s formation of the National Council for a New America (NCNA) by House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to hold public forums across the nation is the latest attempt by Republicans to drum up interest in the party and regain moderates who jumped ship over the last eight years. The group held their first “town hall” on May 2 at a pizzeria in northern Virginia, capriciously fielding questions from the owner, another Joe the Plumber type, about how the party can represent the needs of small business.
An interesting characteristic of the forum was the omission of certain divisive topics, namely those which social conservatives see as important: abortion rights, immigration and same-sex marriage. The so-called party ‘base’ of the GOP immediately blasted the NCNA, calling the efforts to rebrand the party misguided and out of touch with the Republican rank and file. It seems the party is so divided that any attempt to reign in centrists, which the party so desperately needs, is met with internal resistance.
One of the critics, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, said it was a “sad day” when Republicans think “it is necessary to form a ‘listening group’ to find out what Americans think we should be fighting for. Not to be outdone, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh likened “listening” to conceding to the center, declaring instead the party needs a “teaching tour.”
Another problem with the council is its inclusion of such figures as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who like his brother subscribed to the failed extremism that killed his party. The group reeks of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the neo-conservative think tank responsible for our involvement in Iraq and whose Statement of Principles was co-signed by the former governor. PNAC was supported by other shining stars such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, ‘Scooter’ Libby and Paul Wolfowitz, the very people and policies the ‘new’ GOP would like to distance itself from.
Despite denials by Cantor, this whole debacle is just the latest shallow effort to make-over a party that has become, as the Democrats call it, “the party of No.” Public perception of the Republican Party as incompetent (Iraq, Katrina), corrupt (Cunningham, Abramoff) and lacking credibility regarding traditional conservatism (out-of-control spending and the growth of government) has lead to an image that will be hard to shake. Furthermore, pro-tax cuts, pro-torture, anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage is not a platform that will win any elections in the near future.
So what are the Republicans to do? I can think of a few things that would be helpful. First, I think the formation of a group like the NCNA was a good idea in trying to move the GOP message back to the center. However, the efforts need to be genuine and the message not just surface-deep. The conversation must not simply ignore topics that divide the party and any efforts at rebranding must not include hardliners like Jeb Bush and Sarah Palin. Look no further than Palin’s inclusion in the moderate McCain’s presidential bid for proof that the far-right voice no longer resonates as strongly with the voting public.
Also, the party needs to look to the future. Republicans ignore the concerns of millennials and minorities at their own peril. According to an April Pew Center study, the 2008 election was the most diverse in American history, both ethnically and age-wise. The 76.3 percent of the 131 million people who cast ballots is the lowest share of the white voting population ever. The implications this holds for a party that is seen as the one for hawkish and well-off white people is disastrous.
The generational gap in the GOP message is another area they need improvement. When you have young Bristol Palin refuting the effectiveness of abstinence-only education and Meghan McCain admitting that “old-school” Republicans are “scared shitless,” you’ve got a major problem with the future of your party.
Though one could argue his decision was driven by political survival, the recent ship jumping by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) has highlighted the fact that there seems to be no room in the party for moderates. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has been all but shunned from the party he served because he didn’t toe the line with the Bush administration at every step. And the fact that he endorsed the Democratic presidential candidate may have something to do with it. Because he has integrity, former Vice President Dick Cheney recently said he didn’t think Powell was still a Republican and would choose Limbaugh over Powell any day of the week.
According to Richard Viguerie, author of “Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause,” the current GOP leadership has no message —or guts — that appeal to the mainstream conservative and that there are no shakers in the party. Leaders emulating historically popular conservatives are missing in action.
“The ascendancy of conservatives to power was done by boat-rockers, not establishment politicians,” Viguerie said in a May 10 Los Angeles Times op-ed. “Barry Goldwater laid the foundation of reducing government to conform to the Constitution. Ronald Reagan demonstrated that the conservative vision of smaller government is one of prosperity. The Gingrich revolution started making congressional leaders the servants of the people, not vice versa.”
“Republicans need the political equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous,” he added. “First, they must admit their problem (many are in denial). Next, they must promise never to do it again. Then they must recognize what caused the problem (‘Washingtonitis,’ abandoning the principles of the party and allowing people who didn’t believe in the principles of the party to assume leadership positions). Last, when in a hole, stop digging.”
While I sincerely disagree with most of what the Republican Party of the last eight years stood for, the idea of giving the Democrats unopposed free reign of the country is not characteristic of a healthy democracy. I would like to see the Republican Party dust itself off and stop letting hawks like Limbaugh and Cheney speak for them. Weak attempts at PR will not bring moderates back to the party — substance and honesty will. Last I checked, the moderate conservative voice is still a part of the national political conversation. They deserve better.
Matt Fountain is a journalism senior and Mustang Daily reporter.