Matt Bai has a great article up today about the Republicans and the upcoming 2012 election. The temptation is to get a candidate that will fire up the base and wow the crowds. In doing so, Bai tells the GOP to remember what happened to the Democrats in 2004 with Howard Dean:
Now flash forward to 2003, when another little-known governor from a small state, Howard Dean of Vermont, joined the messy field of candidates vying to take on President George W. Bush. Mr. Dean began that campaign as a proven centrist in the Clinton mold, espousing two central planks: health care reform and a balanced budget.
By then, though, the activist base of the party had had its fill of Clintonism, and it was demanding a candidate who would make a more ideologically pure indictment of conservatism. Mr. Dean grabbed an oar and steered furiously into the current. “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party!” he told the California Democratic convention in March 2003, bringing the crowd to its feet.
Within months, Mr. Dean had so surpassed his rivals in money and glamour that ABC’s Ted Koppel, moderating a Democratic debate, felt moved to ask the other candidates if they thought Mr. Dean could beat Mr. Bush. He needn’t have wondered; as it turned out, Mr. Dean ended up winning only two primaries, in his home state and the District of Columbia.
The main lesson Republicans might take from this admittedly selective contrast is that chasing the applause of the faithful, even in a party that is more ideologically cohesive, generally gets you only so far. Aspirants at this week’s forum can elevate themselves by playing, both rhetorically and substantively, to a base that’s virulently anti-Washington and anti-Obama. But the wider primary electorate may judge such stridently partisan candidates to be unelectable.
Bai says the lesson Republicans should follow is that of Bill Clinton, who persued a more moderate path that brought the Dems back in the White House after sixteen years and also led to two back to back terms:
What Mr. Clinton proved, however, is that laying out a more affirmative vision of what the party should stand for, and trying to persuade activists of its merits, makes for a more enduring campaign, both in the primaries and in November. This would suggest that if you’re Mr. Thune or Mr. Daniels, you don’t necessarily have to win the approval of everyone in the room at CPAC; you just have to convince them, over time, that yours is the vision that will ultimately attract enough independent voters to return the party to power.
There is an obvious lesson here for the GOP base and establishment, especially in light of this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). But I also think there is a lesson here for political centrists within the Republican Party.
The news this week is that Tea Party is officially going after Maine moderate Olympia Snowe when she comes up for re-election. Solomon Kleinsmith thinks this is proof-positive that Snowe is no longer welcomed in the GOP and instead should run as an independent. It’s an attractive option and I tend to wander back and forth from the idea of moderate Republicans running as independents or not. But I wonder if in the long run, the better option is stand and persuade instead of leaving.
I think the problem with centrists on both sides of the isle is that they have a problem explaining why they are needed and why people should vote for them. Like Mainline Protestant Christians, centrists have been part of their party for so long, that they forget why they are where they are. Very seldom do they present a true governing vision. Whenever I hear some moderate person running for office, what they usually talk about is being able to work accross the isle, or come up with the best ideas of left and right, or what have you. They want to come accross as an able functionary, but what the average voter wants is a compelling vision. Clinton in 1992 had a vision of what he wanted and that’s what propelled him to victory.
I think that in this age of the Tea Party, moderate and even conventional Republicans have to explain clearly what is their governing vision. Why do they want to be in public office?
One reason that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder won is because he presented a real vision for governing. He is a roadmap for moderates within the GOP. It’s not enough to be moderate. One has to be able to say how they would want to govern and make their society better than what it was. He was able to bring independents into the GOP .
Now, maybe Snowe could win as an independent. But the thing is, if she can’t explain why she should be elected other than “vote for me, because I’m moderate,” then she won’t win. In Minnesota, former Republican Tom Horner ran as an independent/third party candidate. But most of his spiel was to run as a functionary, not a visionary. The result was that he won 12 percent of the vote.
That said, if she wins as an independent what does that mean? Joe Liberman ran as an independent, but for the most part he voted with the Dems. How is that “independent?”
I think in the end, centrists in the GOP (all five of us) need to better explain why we are a better choice than a Tea Party candidate. We need to persuade folks to who might not have ever pulled the “R” lever to actually vote for Republicans. I want to see the Scott Browns, Richard Lugars and Olympia Snowes come up with a real compelling vision that will make people vote for them in primaries over a Tea Partier. It’s time to make a stand.