Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Adapting to the Present

Over the past few days, some insightful pieces about the 2016 race have come out, and I thought it worth pointing out a couple that reflect on the need for the GOP to adapt to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Pete Spiliakos argues that Texas senator Ted Cruz often needs to do more to break out of the political cocoon:
Cruz talks in the coded language of political junkies. He talks about religious liberty and partial-birth abortion, but large swaths of his hearers have no idea what he is talking about. This leads to a bifurcation of public opinion about Cruz. Political obsessives like the people reading this post could tell you Cruz’s opinion on just about anything. The regular person couldn’t tell you anything, because Cruz might as well be speaking a foreign language in his prepared speeches and in his paid media.
In a memo for the Lone Star Committee, Rich Danker doesn't say exactly that, but he does offer an extensive discussion of why Donald Trump has been able to best the Cruz campaign (and all his Republican rivals) throughout the primary season so far.

Danker notes that Trump did not bow before some of the standard idols of process.  Unlike many of his opponents, Trump did not subscribe to any "lane" theory of politics.  Rather than trying to win in a lane, Trump tried to win the primary.  Also, Trump has made himself very available to the media, which helped him achieve media saturation; other candidates tried to limit their access to the media, but that hurt their abilities to get a message out.  According to Danker, within the GOP and in the broader media, Trump was willing to try to play everywhere, and that paid electoral dividends.

One of the most interesting parts of Danker's memo comes near the end:
Cruz certainly grasped something about conservatism in GOP presidential politics in that Reagan ran as a conservative across all three major policy zones – economics, social issues, and foreign policy – and Republicans ever since have resisted emulating that example. But Reagan made his conservatism seem utterly relevant to the world he was campaigning in. He understood presidential elections are situational, not ideological. Therefore the candidate who wins the primary and the general elections is usually the one who best applies their ideological outlook to the issues of the day. Donald Trump loses to Ted Cruz on a conservative scorecard, but he did a better job on selling his conservative positions as the cures to today's public evils.
Whatever one thinks about the particular diagnoses of Danker and Spiliakos vis-a-vis the Cruz campaign, they both touch on a broader issue about the importance of not confusing electoral politics with debates about ideological purity.

If Republicans hope to cobble together a national governing coalition, they will need to focus less on posturing about who is the most "conservative" candidate and more about how to adapt the principles of conservatism to contemporary, real-world problems.  Ronald Reagan might have run as a conservative candidate, but his campaign did not rest content with the message of I'm conservative so vote for me.  Instead, he argued that his vision of conservatism could respond to the problems of Americans of all political stripes.

The GOP has struggled to establish an enduring presidential majority in recent years for a number of reasons, but electoral difficulties with the middle and working classes have surely played a role.  One thing that would help would be to end the thralldom to nostalgia and the limited comforts of reciting old victories.  It's very possible for enduring conservative principles to be applied to the problems of the present and help advance the public good.  But that will demand a willingness to challenge stale orthodoxies.  It will also require leaving behind ideological posturing and instead embracing intellectual seriousness and a responsiveness to the demands of the present.

Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and others rose to the challenges of the present in their times.  That's what statesmen do.  And now is certainly a time for statesmen and, of course, stateswomen.

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