Extreme Party Makeovers

alf landonI always enjoy reading political analyst Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics. What makes him interesting is that he tends to go against the conventional wisdom that is flying around the politisphere. Recently, he a three part series on the future of the GOP and true to form, he goes against the grain. Today’s article dealt with the idea of the GOP having to move to the center in order to win elections and be a viable party. It’s a viewpoint that many have taken, including myself. Trende looks to the past to show that moderation doesn’t always bring votes. He starts by sharing what happened to the GOP during the FDR years:

In the aftermath of the ’32 blowout (when Democrats gained almost 100 seats) and the affirmation of the New Deal in the 1934 midterms (they gained another nine seats), Republicans decided they needed to change.* In 1936, they nominated a governor from the progressive wing of the party, Alf Landon of Kansas (pictured). Landon had actually broken from the party and supported Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose run in 1912, and represented an attempt by Republicans to re-energize the party’s strength in the progressive West.

The result was an even worse loss than it suffered in 1932 with the more conservative Herbert Hoover. Notwithstanding Landon’s support for organized labor and large portions of the New Deal, he won just eight electoral votes. Republicans were reduced to 88 House seats, 16 Senate seats, five governorships, and control of 21 state chambers (out of 92). Republicans stuck with the model, though. In 1940, they nominated a former Democrat (Wendell Willkie) who supported large portions of the New Deal. Likewise, Tom Dewey was a cautious centrist, whose campaign (twice) focused on his ability to manage the New Deal better than Democrats.

When Republicans did win, in 1952, there was no makeover. Conservatives had argued for one, and backed Ohio Sen. Bob Taft for president, using terms that in many ways foreshadowed today’s anti-establishment Tea Party rhetoric. Everett Dirksen, shouting from the podium and wagging his finger at Tom Dewey (in the audience) argued for the seating of delegates critical to Taft’s campaign: “I stood with you in 1940. I stood with you in 1944. I stood with you in 1948, when you gave us a candidate [drowned out by crowd] . . . . To my friends from New York, when my friend Tom Dewey was the candidate in ’44 and ’48, I tried to be one of his best campaigners. . . . Re-examine your hearts [on this delegate issue] because we followed you before, and you took us down the road to defeat! Don’t do this to us!”

What find so fascinating is that I and alot of other people never thought about this. I mean, all you had to do is look at a history book and figure this out.

None of this means that the GOP is fine and doesn’t need to remodel. But no one should think that a policy change here and a compromise there is going to create a winning coalition. Rebranding for the sake of rebranding isn’t going to put the GOP back into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The model that pundits like yours truly like to think about when it comes to reforming the GOP is the Democratic Leadership Council which created policy positions that were not the typical liberal fare and made the way for Bill Clinton to become president in 1992. Pundits like to think that it was because the Democrats moved to the center that Clinton was able to win. While that might be part of the answer, could it also be that the GOP had the Presidency for 12 years and voters wanted something new? Also, the economy was sluggish in 1992, and President George H.W. Bush didn’t appear to be handling it well. What if the Democrats won not because they were so excellent, but because of external factors?

Paul Waldman echoes this in a recent article. Here’s what he says about the ’92 general election:

I think the degree to which political success comes from the public agreeing with you on issues is being dramatically overstated. If you look at the ups and downs of the parties over the last 20 years, a couple of other factors—timing, and what your opponents do—matter a whole lot more.

Let’s quickly run over this history, starting with the Democrats’ first revival, with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Was it important that Clinton was a centrist Democrat who sought to neutralize the party’s electoral problems on being seen by white voters as too solicitous of black people and too soft on crime? (If you’re too young to remember the 1992 campaign, Google “Ricky Ray Rector” and “Sister Souljah” to see what I’m talking about.) Sure. But had the country not been in a recession in 1992, that wouldn’t have been enough. And if that was a Democratic revival that went beyond one guy getting elected, it didn’t last very long; two years later, Republicans took over both houses of Congress.

That brings us to the opposition factor. After the Gingrich Revolution, voters got to see the new version of the Republican party, and they were completely turned off. In 1996, Clinton ran one ad after another featuring pictures of Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich together to taint Dole with the stain of the unpopular House Speaker. But what got him re-elected, more than anything else, was the humming economy. We could argue about how much credit he deserved for it, but the importance it had was undeniable, and it wasn’t a judgment voters were making about his New Democrat philosophy that got him a second term.

I’m curious to see how this will all play out in 2016. By then, the Democrats will have had the Presidency for 8 years. What will the economy be like? Will we be at peace or at war? Maybe all of these factors will have an effect on whether or not we will have a President Hillary Clinton or a President Chris Christie.

Does that mean that ideas (or lack thereof in the case of the modern GOP) don’t matter? No. Ideas do have a place and the current discussions going on in the GOP between the libertarian populists and the establishment matter. Bill Clinton won because he had ideas and connected to people emotionally during an uncertain time, but he wouldn’t have one if the country wasn’t in a recession. George W. Bush won in 2004 because September 11 was still fresh in the American mind and Iraq was not yet a quagmire. Americans were thinking about security and the GOP seemed better at keeping us safe. Ideas do matter. But so do the times.

I think it is important for the GOP to focus on issues like the economic insecurity that people face in this sluggish economy. But even if the GOP comes up with a boffo policies it might not matter if the economy is humming in 2016.

Does the GOP needed rebranding? Being a heterodox conservative, I tend to think so. I just don’t think that rebranding alone will put the GOP back in the White House.

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