Where We Go From Here

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Commentators on this site and throughout the right wing chattering classes tend to agree that Conservatives and Republicans should take what happened Tuesday as a wake-up call. They are correct, but they do not seem to agree on what practical steps that entails. What follows is a broad outline of the problems we face, as I see them, and of a program for political recovery that should carry the GOP to victory in the 2008 Presidential elections and in the Congressional elections that same year.

First, the problems:

The number one problem the Republican Party faces today is that they have failed to differentiate themselves from the Democratic Party on most major issues in such a ways as would accrue to their political advantage. The exit polls bear this out. At the top of the list of damaging electoral issues was the Iraq War. Six out of ten voters said the Iraq War has not made the United States safer, and they gave three out of every four of their votes to the Democrats. Corruption also played a role in the election. Four in ten voters said it was important to their vote, and guess which party they voted for? Moreover, the bedrock issue for the GOP over the last two years has been the war on terror. Terrorism was still an important issue to more than 70% of voters in 2006, but roughly half of those voters voted Democrat. [1]

Now I know what you’re going to say? Exit polls are skewed towards Democrats. True, but not so much as we like to believe. The 2006 exit polls are a case in point. The ones I looked at on CNN usually showed the Democrats finishing a point or two points better than they actually finished, but in almost all cases they correctly predicted the result of the race. What we saw in the exit polls was a broad trend, more than a few points, which showed that the GOP did not have a major advantage on any significant issue, while the Democrats enjoyed advantages on several issues.

This is not to say that there are no issues on which Republicans enjoy a natural advantage. Terrorism is probably still one of them, but the historical circumstances surrounding this vote didn’t do much to emphasize the GOP’s “get tough” position on that issue. Immigration is another case of an issue, which should have worked in the GOP’s favor, but didn’t do much to benefit them this year. A Quinnipiac poll taken this year showed that 89% of the public thinks illegal immigration is a problem, and for 63% that problem is either “very serious,” or “extremely serious.”[2] That sentiment lines up well with the historic GOP position on the issue, but it didn’t do GOP candidates much good this year, in large part because the Bush administration has been sending the public mixed signals on the issue. In Arizona voters defeated strong-borders proponents like incumbent Congressman John D. Hayworth, even though they also voted for an Amendment to make English the official language of the state. [3]

The root problem these numbers illustrate is that the GOP has not taken advantage of the issues on which it has enjoyed the historic support of the American public: immigration, English as an official language, budgets and deficits, national security, a strong military, state’s rights, limited government, crime, and affirmative action. These are the issues on which the GOP majority was built in 1994. But it’s not enough simply to be on the right side of an issue; the public has to recognize where you stand on that issue, and they have to believe that voting for you is likely to make a difference. For all intents and purposes there is only one major issue on which a broad segment of the public actually favors the GOP: gay marriage. That cause didn’t sway many votes in 2006 primarily because debate over it was restricted to the various constitutional amendments being pushed at the state level. What has kept the Republican Party going the last couple of election cycles was their advantage on the terrorism issue. Certainly, a majority of Americans still believe that the war on terror is an important issue, [1] and that we need to fight the war to win it, but in 2006 they didn’t see how the Republicans in Congress were doing that. What they saw, for the most part, was Iraq. And they viewed Iraq (fairly or unfairly) as a situation in which the United States was not achieving measurable progress in the war on terror.

That leads us to where we need to go from here. We have to regain control of the issues that give the GOP the best prospect for success, but in order to do that we also have to make sure we really are pursuing the right policies. That will not be easy, because Republicans in 2006 will be operating as the minority in both houses of Congress. But minority status offers certain advantages as well as the obvious disadvantages. The minority can frame issues around legislative proposals that will appeal to the majority of the electorate, but which they know the majority party will defeat. Also, the Republicans still have control of the White House for the next two years. Whatever difficulties President Bush faces right now, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue remains the most powerful bully pulpit in the nation. In order for the GOP to make a comeback in 2008 the Republican Congressional minorities and the Republican White House need to work together to advance a policy agenda designed to fracture the Democratic Coalition, breaking it apart at the seems.

To put it in anatomical terms, we are looking to inflict the political equivalent of blunt force trauma on the Democratic Party. The Democratic coalition, like any political coalition, is built from many disparate elements. However, Republicans have reason to believe that this particular coalition has even less internal cohesion than the usual congressional majority. They have succeeded by papering over the genuine ideological differences between the liberal core of the Democratic Party and the candidates they promoted in red state territory like defense hawk James Webb and social conservative Robert Casey, Jr. Ordinarily, I do not like to cite dailykos for anything, but consider the interview Casey gave to the left-leaning website in March, 2005. [4] According to Casey, he supports overturning Roe v. Wade. He opposes public funding for abortion. He opposes human cloning for any reason (does Michael J. Fox know about that?). He supports the death penalty. When Kos asked him if he supported government “requiring that benefits be provided to same-sex partners” he segued saying that “Employers should be permitted to extend domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples in committed, long-term relationships.” Nice dodge Casey. He also opposes “legislation that forces Catholic health care providers to deliver services contrary to their conscience and moral teachings.” Regardless of whether or not Casey was sincere when he made these statements (and I am sure some people here will argue that he was not), as a politician we can assume that his responses represent the sentiments of a constituency he was actively trying to court. Does any constituency that would ascribe to the principles Casey enunciated fit neatly with the modern Democratic Party? It certainly does not.

The important thing to remember is that the differences between Casey’s constituency and the Democratic Party are not just disagreements over policy. They are also profoundly cultural disagreements. As such they represent an opportunity for the GOP because in the long run cultural disputes are much harder to overcome than policy disagreements. Consider the following passage from James Webb’s 2004 book, Born Fighting, a history of the Scots-Irish in America:[5]

The culture so dramatically symbolized by the Southern redneck [is] the greatest inhibitor of the plans of the activist Left and the cultural Marxists for a new kind of society altogether.

From the perspective of the activist Left, [rednecks] are the greatest obstacles to what might be called the collectivist taming of America, symbolized by the edicts of political correctness. And for the last fifty years the Left has been doing everything in its power to sue them, legislate against their interests, mock them in the media, isolate them as idiosyncratic, and publicly humiliate their traditions in order to make them, at best, irrelevant to America's future growth.

Regardless of whether or not James Webb still believes what he wrote in that book (and I think he does, at least to some extent), his appeal to Virginia voters was based in large part on the assumption that he represented the constituency he lionized in that book. That constituency sees itself as a harassed, beleaguered, and isolated rural America that had no love for the mainstream American left. Will the representative of such a community feel at home in a party dominated by the likes of Senator Ted Kennedy, Charles Schumer, and their ilk. Perhaps, but there can be little doubt how his constituency will feel about the alliance.

Webb’s nationalism and Casey’s cultural conservatism reveal only the most obvious examples of inconsistency and dissonance within the current Democratic coalition. Taken together they represent the joints, sinews, and ligaments of a political organism that may not yet know how to walk on its own, much less govern a country. Those are the weak spots that Republicans exploit. The goal is to take this political animal apart much like a butcher disassembles a cow or a pig. Here are eight ways we can do it:

1) Re-establish the Republican advantage on National Security.

Democratic hawks like Senator Hillary Clinton have converted their support for increase defense spending and a larger military into a considerable political advantage with the electorate. Now that they are in power Republicans should demand to know if they were serious about that. The GOP and the White House should push legislation that adds at least two new Army divisions and two new carrier battle groups to our existing forces. If the Democrats balk, pull out the video footage and newspaper clippings of Democrats criticizing the President for allowing military readiness to suffer.[6] If they try to lowball on defense spending, demand to know whether they’re following the lead of James Webb or Dennis Kucinich on national security.[7]

Along the same lines, Republicans should demand increases in intelligence spending, a re-invigorated spy program, appropriations for missile defense, weapons research, and (for good measure) body armor. They should demand these things, not just because they are right (which they are), but because they are but because they will force the Democrats to make hard choices, and to face the serious divisions within their own ranks.

2) Make Immigration a Republican Issue Again.

The bill for a new border fence was a good start, but the House passed it only after so much internal bickering over immigration reform within Republican ranks that the public could not tell for sure whether the GOP passed the fence bill out of conviction or convenience. We need to reassert ourselves on this issue by calling for more money, more fencing, more guards, more UAV’s to help secure the border, and more of everything else. The time has come to shed the image, long cultivated by this White House, of the GOP as Mexico’s best friend in America. Republicans should continue to court Hispanic voters on cultural issues, on abortion, taxes, education, school vouchers, and by promising not to curtail legal immigration. However, on illegal immigration we need to make a clear distinction between the GOP and the Democratic Party. Most second and third generation Latinos oppose illegal immigration anyway.[8] And the first generation Latinos don’t vote often.

3) Make the GOP the Anti-Cloning Party.

Apart from Gay Marriage (already discussed), this is the number one cultural issue on which the GOP can score points in the upcoming elections. It is also the antidote to the stem cell issue. Right or wrong, most American believe stem cell research (and they don’t distinguish between adult or embryonic stem cell research) is just ordinary science to benefit human beings. But they take a different tack on human cloning. A recent Pew poll showed that 87 percent of Americans opposed cloning to produce a child, and 60 percent opposed so-called “therapeutic cloning” which involves cloning embryos for the purpose of medical research.[9] Republicans need to reinforce the link between the two types of cloning, and make it clear to the American public that they oppose both.

4) Reassert Fiscal Conservatism.

Over the next two years Republicans in Congress (hopefully with the support of the White House) need to pick several high-profile fights with the Democrats over spending issues. They should not find that a hard task. In their hearts the Democrats remain a tax and spend party, and now that they hold the all levers of power in Congress their old nature will reassert itself. Ask yourselves whether Senator Robert Byrd, who just won election to what will surely be his last term, is going to restrain his notorious appetite for pork now that he has two more years in the majority to indulge himself. He is a long time denizen of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Budget Committee.[10] Will the Democrats tap Senator Byrd to chair either of these important fiscal committees? If so, the GOP can, and should, make an issue out of it. That is the sort of issue the public can easily understand and identify with.

5) Attack Democratic Hypocrisy.

Democrats have got a lot of mileage out of attacking Republican corruption. They will seek to do the same with continuing congressional investigations into Halliburton, Defense Contractors, Big Oil, and the Iraq War. As the minority party, Republicans need to return the favor, and there are plenty of potential targets. Republicans should demand investigations into Harry Reid’s sweetheart land deal, [11] and they should demand an immediate vote to expel Congressman William Jefferson from the House of Representatives.[12]

6) Excorcise the Ghost of Mark Foley

Make no mistake, the Foley scandal badly damaged GOP electoral prospects in 2006. It does not matter that Democrats were hypocritically playing the gay card. It makes no difference that Gerry Studds and Barney Frank did the same sort of thing or even worse. The Foley scandal caused millions of Americans to question whether Republicans truly had the best interests of their children at heart. There is a solution to that. The congressional GOP and the White House need to support a national version of Jessica’s Law during the next congressional session.[13] This will have the advantage of solidifying the support of religious conservatives and making inroads with Middle America. Moreover, it will force Democrats to confront their historic ties to the ACLU and likeminded civil liberties organizations.

7) Take Affirmative Action out of the Courts and into Congress

During the Bush Administration the Republican Party has relied on the courts to make necessary reforms on affirmative action. That was a mistake, both because it actually inhibited reform and because it deprived the GOP of a political issue that had worked to their advantage. Republicans can redeem themselves on this issue by pushing national legislation to penalize public universities that practice racial discrimination in hiring or admissions by curtailing their funding.

8) Reassert the GOP advantage on Terrorism.

The Democrats may well play into GOP hands on this issue. In the next two years they will most likely try to pick a fight with the administration over the NSA wiretapping program or domestic surveillance in general. The GOP needs to be prepared to counterattack vigorously. A 2005 Rasmussen poll showed that 64 percent of the public “believe the National Security Agency (NSA) should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States.”[14] That is precisely what the NSA program does, and the GOP needs to be prepared to explain this in meticulous detail, as well as use the issue to reinforce the fact that the Democrats are “soft” on terrorism.

9) Change Course on Iraq.

This will be the hardest pill for many conservatives and Republicans to swallow. Regardless of whether or not you think the war is worth fighting and winning (as I do), the election results were a clear and unequivocal call for change in our current policy toward Iraq. That does not necessarily mean we must “cut and run” from the country. Most Americans can be persuaded to continue the fight in that country, but only if they are convinced that we can win and are winning that struggle. Currently, they do not believe that. The administration needs to publicly explore and embrace alternative strategies for the war in Iraq, including the idea of partition suggested recently by former Secretary of State James Baker. [15]

Unless the public believes that Republicans are making changes on Iraq they will punish the GOP in 2008 just as they did in 2006. We can not simply hope that an incoming Democratic administration will, two years from now, defy its own base and continue to prosecute the War in Iraq to a successful conclusion. We have two years to show real progress on that front, or the public will vote in a President who will end the conflict in any way necessary. Hard-line supporters of the war in Iraq need to understand that regardless of any success our military might achieve on the battlefield, the war is lost if the public is unwilling to support it. For the sake of our country and Iraq, that is a reality we must reckon with; we can not finesse it.

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/08/AR200611...
[2] http://www.fairus.org/site/PageServer?pagename=research_researchd74c
[3] http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2006/pages/results/states/AZ/
[4] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2005/3/26/223636/897
[5] James Webb, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004)
[6] http://www.democrats.org/a/2005/05/on_military.php
[7] http://kucinich.house.gov/Issues/Issue/?IssueID=1558
[8] http://www.informationliberation.com/index.php?id=9391 / http://www.opinionet.com/article.php?id=6108&PHPSESSID=90218a9a9750198a2...
[9] http://www.bayoubuzz.com/articles.aspx?aid=8573
[10] http://www.byrd.senate.gov/biography/committees/committees.html
[11] http://hughhewitt.townhall.com/g/60cfaa13-14ca-4666-8de9-85257862ebc1
[12] http://www.bayoubuzz.com/articles.aspx?aid=8573
[13] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/03/31/earlyshow/main684190.shtml
[14] http://www.rasmussenreports.com/2005/NSA.htm
[15] http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-2393750.html

The MSM likes to promote "stem cell research" as a panacea of cures, and tries to fool the public into believing that embryonic stem cells are better than adult stem cells, and that opponents of killing human embryos are Neanderthals.

We need to get the distinction out, loud and clear:

Adult stem cells, cord-blood stem cells: nobody hurt, lots of cures.

Embryonic stem cells: Morally wrong, medically useless.

Science and morality are on the same side here. But we have to cut through the media spin. It cost Jim Talent his seat, and us the Senate.

The bad news: Conservatism is hard to sell. The good news is that it works.

difference between the two. How does that relate to my argument?

A precedent embalms a principle.
- Disraeli

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