Give Barack Obama credit for this much: he’s made “change” such a popular buzzword that even Republicans want a piece of the action.
Candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee wrap themselves in the mantle of change. A supporter of former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell urged “members of the RNC who are supporting other ‘change’ candidates” to vote for his man. A Washington Post political blogger says former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is the candidate of change.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also agrees that his party needs to “change” and “adapt” if he is ever going to become majority leader again. McConnell supports the incumbent RNC chair, Mike Duncan, who presumably also likes change.
This political environment prompted political writer David Frum to make a change as well. At the beginning of the Obama administration, he shut down his blog on National Review Online — where he’d been standing athwart his colleagues on such topics as the vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin — and set up shop at a website called the New Majority. This new site is “dedicated to the reform and renewal of the Republican party and the conservative movement” as well as “building a conservatism that can win again.”
Frum and his fellow New Majoritarians are particularly concerned about the shrinking Republican base. Just five years after some polls found parity between Republicans and Democrats, Gallup has determined that Democrats now outnumber Republicans by the biggest margin since 1983. Frum concludes, “The news is so very bad that there will be only one possible response from our party leadership and our radio talkers: Ignore it.”
It would indeed be folly for a political party to ignore the fact that only 28 percent of the American people identify with it. The trouble with the New Majority, however, is that the site’s contributors are often more specific about what’s wrong with that 28 percent than about the kind of voters Republicans can win. Don’t expand the GOP — dissolve the party and elect another.
Perusing the site, one learns that “rigid social-issues conservatives” are “the primary internal obstacle to Republican renewal nationally.” Or that social conservatives, the largest single voting bloc in the GOP, are disloyal Republicans on account of a few contrarian bloggers. (By the way, when did “peacefully annexing Mexico” become part of the Republican platform?) Or that we should be worried when the Today Show says House Republicans voted against the stimulus plan because it didn’t contain enough tax cuts.
The last bit is a reader comment rather than a blog post, but it nevertheless shows a representative mindset at work: “Now imagine if the GOP did not have such a knee-jerk opposition to spending and actually thought strategically. The lede could have been ‘Republicans voted against the measure because it did not include enough large infrastructure projects and lacked imagination.'”
Yes, that’s definitely what the Today Show would have said about it.
Although former FCC chairman Michael Powell appeared on the site to lament the Republican Party’s lack of racial diversity — in an entry that contained more general complaints about the GOP’s fuddy-duddiness than specific policy proposals — the constituencies the New Majority seems most aimed at are white, educated, upper-middle-class voters in the Northeast. Republicans need to move on from the Southern-fried “Bush/Cheney/Rove/DeLay-era” and replace it with the moderate Republicanism of Henry Stimson.
In other words, we need a Republican Party that can win Greenwich, Connecticut and Lincoln, Massachusetts again: Meet the new majority, same as the old majority. Or the old minority, actually. When the GOP had its Rockefellers and Saltonstalls and Lindsays, Republicans lost most elections. The level to which Republicans are now sinking was the norm for the pre-Reagan Republican Party.
More recently, Chris Shays, Sue Kelly, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Leach, and Connie Morella were not purged from the party by censorious, single-issue conservatives. They were thrown out of office by their own voters. Chafee, like Arlen Specter an election cycle before him, beat a conservative in the primary. The most liberal Republican senator went on to win 94 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of conservatives that November. But he was defeated just like his more conservative colleagues.
Perhaps, then, the problem is the Republican Party’s intolerant conservative national brand. Except the GOP of the 1990s — with leaders like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay — were more socially conservative and more antigovernment in their rhetoric than the Republicans of the dreaded Bush era. And still the Northeast elected Rudy Giuliani in New York City, George Pataki in New York State, Bill Weld in Massachusetts, Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, Lincoln Almond in Rhode Island, John Rowland in Connecticut, and Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey. All were pro-choice social liberals, though Giuliani, Weld, and Whitman emphasized their conservative credentials on taxes, balanced budgets, crime, and welfare.
What did Republicans left, right, and center have in common in the 1990s that all party factions lack now? Back then, the GOP could run against entrenched Democratic majorities that had governed badly. Now, fairly or unfairly, George W. Bush is regarded as a presidential failure of almost Carter-like proportions. The Iraq war, unpopular even after the surge, is one of the biggest reasons for the aura of Republican failure. Yet the war is seldom questioned on the New Majority, suggesting that at least some issues are above political considerations.
The New Majority massages the prejudices of its intended audience — the independent voters described by John Avlon as “fiscally conservative, socially progressive and strong on national security” — as much as Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter play to theirs. It is frustrating to see commentators with so much to say about policy waste their talents on politics, trying to build a new majority by insulting the old one.