Friday, November 10, 2006

What are Republicans For? The 2006 Elections as a teachable moment

The most important thing about great defeats is the lessons you learn from them. And the nice thing about political defeats is that there are always plenty of people around to tell you what these lessons are. At the risk of adding to the already formidable volume of such advice, here are a few observations Republicans should keep in mind after Tuesday's defeat at the polls.

There are three essential rules of political success, all of which the Republicans either ignored or rendered themselves incapable of following:

Rule #1: Say what you're going to do: In the case of the Republican Party in the 2006 election, their lack of any coherent agenda left voters with only two things on their minds: Iraq and political corruption, neither of which they seemed too crazy about. In other words, Republicans didn't say what they were going to do, so voters cast their votes on the basis of something else, in this case, what others said they were going to do (i.e., the same old thing).

Rule #2: Do what you said you were going to do: The modern Republican Party is the party of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich brought the Republicans to prominence in Washington on the basis of a principled and clearly articulated agenda: The Contract with America. The Republicans were going to make government smaller, less intrusive, and more responsive to the voters. There was also the implicit understanding that values issues would receive the attention they deserved. As long as they stuck to this agenda, they succeeded. But two things happened that undermined the success of the party. The first was the fall of Gingrich. The second was the rise of Karl Rove.

Unlike Gingrich, who, though personally unpopular, understood the importance of principles in political strategy, Rove was pure Machiavellian. Rove calculated that if the Republicans co-opted the Democrats on two issues, education and health care, they could deprive the Democrats of a political agenda. The Gingrichless Republicans went along with the strategy. They passed the "No Child Left Behind Act" which dramatically expanded the role of the federal government in education, and they passed Medicare drug legislation that created another huge federal entitlement program. And although these actions did deprive the Democrats of an agenda, they went against the very principles on which the Republicans had been elected in the first place.

For the last half of their twelve-year reign, Republicans have been talking like Ronald Reagan and acting like Lyndon Johnson. Republicans need to learn that if they act like Democrats, they are likely to be replaced by them.

Rule #3: Clearly articulate how you did what you said you were going to do: Thanks to Karl Rove's strategy, the Republicans neutered the Democratic agenda, but, in the process, they neutered themselves. They rendered themselves incapable of telling voters that they had done anything they said they were going to do. This left voters in a position of having nothing to vote on except the War and political corruption, about which neither party had anything particularly compelling to say.

Karl Rove mistook good political strategy for good politics. Hopefully, he knows better now.

And this brings us to Rule #4: When disenchanted voters have no particular reason to vote for either party, they will vote for change: There comes a point when voters begin to think that the Devil they don't know might possibly be better than the Devil they do know. We could also call this the "What the heck" rule in politics. Neither party is particularly compelling, but all you know is you don't like how things are going, so, what the heck, let's try the other guys for while.

Today, the great national conservative governing coalition forged by Ronald Reagan and fashioned by Newt Gingrich lies in ruins. The party that once enjoyed a unified front of fiscal and social conservatives is dispirited, leaderless, and bereft of an agenda.

As the national Republican Party uses its time in the wilderness to ponder what went wrong, it needs to consider what it was that made it successful in the first place.


KYJurisDoctor said...

Great analysis. The GREAT Karl Rove has been neutered. Where's Newt (without the unbridled and condesending arrogance).

Anonymous said...

You criticize NCLB, but why no crticism of the poor performance of Kentucky's public-education stystem and the lack academic accountability in our schools? ... and I don't mean just some right-winger issues like prayer in schools, gay issues or evolution. Rather, real substantial improvement. In the past history of our country, it was the churches who promoted the need for a solid education.

Martin Cothran said...

It would have been very hard for me to criticize NCLB, since I don't even know what it stands for. As for not mentioning the lack of accountability in Kentucky's public schools (which I have done ad nauseum for the past 12 years on the air and in print), that is because I was not talking about Kentucky politics, but national politics. And I agree that in the past history of our country churches promoted the need for solid education. The only thing I would add is that they still are. All you have to do is go out and look at all the church sponsored private schools that are operating all around the country, and which are outperforming public schools.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to disagree a little bit. I think the Republicans on a national level -- to some extent -- did say what they were going to do, and did it. George Bush repeated over and over that he was going to "stay the course" in Iraq. And he did. He has the exact same game plan he did 4 years ago. The problem is, it's not working, and the failure is becoming morbidly spectacular.

Of course, there are other issues than the war in Iraq, and Bush was not running. Almost six in ten people who voted disapproved of the war and thought it made America less safe. Two-thirds considered the Iraq war "extremely important." And the Republicans chose to make this war (and national security in general) the issue they would run on nationally.

The problem is they did say what they were going to do, they continued to do what they said, and they did not let reality (or a rising body count) get in the way.

Martin Cothran said...

I agree with you to the extent that Bush tried to make it an issue. But I don't think you had many Republican congressional candidates making it an issue in their own races. In fact, many of them were running away not only from the war, but from Bush himself. Just look at the number of candidates who avoided their own sitting President when he was traveling around the country. Anne Northup in Kentucky is just one example of this.

Michael Y said...

Though Jim Talent (from my state) ran very close to Bush issues, and it got him ousted.

Anonymous said...

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