Thursday, February 26, 2009

Problems for the GOP

Patrick Ruffini offers some perspective on the Republican Party on the eve of the Conservative Political Action Committee meeting, which starts today. Ruffini has particular issues with the elevation of Joe the Plumber as spokesman for the rebuidling conservative movement:

If you want to get a sense of how unserious and ungrounded most Americans think the Republican Party is, look no further than how conservatives elevate Joe the Plumber as a spokesman. The movement has become so gimmick-driven that Wurzelbacher will be a conservative hero long after people have forgotten what his legitimate policy beef with Obama was.
Ruffini notes that the GOP has created a defensive dedoubt in a "politics of identity" that needs cultural heroes like Joe Wurzelbacher in an absurd flinching-crouch against left-wing institutional hegemony:

This is so different than the psychology of the left. The left assumes that it is culturally superior and the natural party of government and fights aggressively to frame any conservative incursion on that turf as somehow alien and unnatural. (The "Oh God..." whisper being the perfect illustration.) They dominate Hollywood not by actively branding liberalism in their movies, but by cooly associating liberal policy ideas with sentiments everyone feels, like love (gay marriage) or fairness (the little guy vs. some evil corporate stiff). Though I think Andrew Breitbart is spot on in raising a red flag on the threat we face in Hollywood, I fear that the conservative movement of today would only produce a response as agitprop and sarcastic as the Joe the Plumber phenomenon. In other words, some amusing slapstick comedies but not sweeping cultural epics that will be remembered 50 years from now. When you assume liberals are dominant culturally, you tend toward sarcasm or one-off gimmicks to knock the majority of its game - but never an all encompassing argument for conservative cultural and political relevance - something we have lacked for a long time, since Buckley was in his prime.

Conservatives should not need Joe the Plumber to prove their middle class bona fides. We are naturally the party of the middle, and we don't need gimmicks to prove it. Demographically, Democrats rely on being the party of the upper sixth and the lower third, while Republicans tend to do better with everyone in between. When we start losing the middle class and the suburbs, we lose big like we did in 2008.
All of this is true, and the rest of the essay is worth a read. Ruffini makes the case for a new Republican Party of ideas. According to this meme, folks on the right can't just go around resurrecting the legacy of Ronald Reagan and hoisting Joe the Plumbers up as confirmation of the "great silent majority." Conseratives need ideas.

I would add that there is a pendulum to politics, and the pendulum has swung toward the Democrats right now, in a time of crisis and repudiation of government incompetence. I don't think Americans have abandoned traditional classically liberal foundations. People are currently willing to support activist government until things get back on track. In normal times, most middle class Americans need very little from government beyond public order and the sense of a secure retirement safety-net. Republicans now need to restore the idea that they are the party of pragmatic clarity and effective administrative stewardship. Anti-corruption and targeted intervention are keywords. Pork-busting campaigns against stimulus boondoggles should be front and center. A new movement toward deregulation in energy and technology has to be at the forefront of GOP leadership on American international independence from oil-producing regimes in the Middle East. Robust ideas about reforming schools and restoring families as vehicles for a new middle class prosperity have to motivate the domestic agenda. An explicit campaign against the popularization of leftist anti-religion and nihilism must be advanced, but with a compelling rationale that doesn't frighten moderates and secularists with church-state sponsorship. Overall, conservatives have to be willing to talk basic culture and values to Americans as the key to the preservation of the American dream

Unfortunately, a lot of these ideas won't gain traction until the economy returns to economic growth and stablity. In the meantime, the Democrats are enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to consolidate their big-government ideology through fear-mongering and stealth. And this is the key problem, not Joe the Plumber. The Democrats are inherently corrupt and ideologically devious, and as Ruffini notes, the media and educational establishments enable a politics-of-postmodernism as the reigning regime of social values, when in truth elite priorities have little in commom with the averge man on the street. The left ridicules regular people - folks who really do like religion and guns - as "
survivalist," while the schools tell us that religion in the public sphere, or the celebration of traditional rituals like childrens' Thanksgiving parades, are "racist discourses of patriarchical dominance."

It's going to be a combination of things that get conservatives back on track. But if the right concedes the socio-cultural realm to the left - and ignores demands for government accountability and competence - all this talk about targeting a few congressional seats here and there in competitive districts while searching for a new Ronald Reagan as the party's standard-bearer in 2012 or 2016 will be worthless and ultimately for naught.

Conservative need to fight on our issues of strength, which are the high ground of moral good and the proven efficacy of free people and free markets. Republicans lost that battle long ago. It's certainly understandable why some people like Joe the Plumber as a spokesman for the conservative case. Maybe not too many Republicans in power have that much credibility with real people on the ground, people who are hurting amid real problems that demand real answers pitched at a level comprehensible to folks on Main Street.


Jason Pappas said...

But we have to be careful not to oversell the free market economy. That will only lead to disillusionment.

There is a notion among the population-at-large that government can repeal the business cycle. If a recession comes, it’s the fault of the Party in power. As Republicans, we have to be careful not to promise omnipotence. Recessions are part of capitalism, while chronic poverty is the norm without free markets. Anyone who promises that they can prevent recessions from happening is selling snake-oil.

We need to explain this in detail.

During a recession we must be wary of abandoning the principles that serve us well in the long run for the sake of expediency. Instead of promising our fellow citizens the moon, we should explain the need to “save for a rainy day”, re-tool for new careers, and resist the temptation to shackle our productive genius.

I’d go further and point out that recession is the cure for mal-investment from previous credit expansions. We shouldn't freeze mal-investment in place by keeping failed industries going, subsidizing homes that are beyond the means of the owners, etc. Yes, we all suffer when our fellow citizens make bad investment decision and do so in a coordinated manner. But we can’t pretend that this can be wished away, prevented, or controlled.

Let’s give a realistic picture of a free economy. It comes with risk and volatility. Let’s not throw it all away because it isn’t perfect. The lesson of the 20th century is that all other systems are far worse. This is why even Obama pays lip service to private institutions and free markets even as he advances a socialist agenda. Socialism doesn’t sell; it only fills the void when we don’t explain what free markets are—both the advantages and the costs.

Let’s present a realistic picture.

Unknown said...


I will agree with you on everything except one point, "People are currently willing to support activist government until things get back on track."

Some of the polls that have been presented indicate a different mind set; (Rasmussen Reports) 54% say no to all bailouts, 55% say Government Mortgage Help Rewards Bad Behavior, 67% of U.S. voters have more confidence in their own judgment than they do in the average member of Congress, and only 34% say the bailout will help the economy.

I guess polls can be interpreted any way you want, but these seem to indicate that Americans support Barack Obama, not government activism. Nevertheless, most Americans didn't realize that Obama was government activism incarnate.

Average American said...

The American public just can't seem to get things in perspective. The polls during the last Bush years had him, on average, 10 points higher than the Congress, but they almost to a person blamed Bush for everything, especially the economy. One would think the blame would automatically go with the lowest set of numbers. The public HAD the right answer, they just didn't see it.

Tom the Redhunter said...

I agree that we need to get past "Joe the Plumber." He was good for the campaign but his time has come and gone.

The problem with him is that anything can come out of his mouth. Politics is not an amateur sport. We need to get serious.