Base Values and the Midterms

WITH LABOR DAY BEHIND US and the 2010 campaigns entering their last phase I thought it’d be interesting to turn the clock back to the middle of May and a debate about the importance of ideological purity and base values in the Summer issue of U.S. News & World Report.

Robert Schlesinger, editing the piece “Two Takes”, introduced the issue in the following terms:

In the run-up to the November elections, Republicans and Democrats alike are dealing with internal fights about the path to victory. At issue is ideological purity. Some strategists argue that emphasizing core values will lead to wins, while others say that the parties need new thinking to keep them relevant. Should parties emphasize base values?

Arguing that “clear principles win elections”: Chris Chocola (former Indiana Republican Rep., president of the Club for Growth—a limited-government, free-enterprise political advocacy group).

Arguing that “pure parties are loosing parties”: Edward Gresser (president of the Democratic Leadership Council—which promotes centrist, pragmatic policy solutions).

I’ll start with Mr. Chocola.

According to Chocola, “the political choice between ideological purity and ‘big tent’ coalition building is inherently false. Success requires both. … A political party can’t build a big tent without it being anchored to clear ideological principles.” Arguing that “Republicans and Democrats represent and advocate for two very different worldviews” at their best, Chocola writes that for a party to succeed, it “must persuade voters to reject the other party’s worldview and support its own. But this is only possible if the party actually has a worldview.”

Chocola then draws the following picture of Republicans’ worldview:

For Republicans, that worldview was summed up by Ronald Reagan more than 20 years ago. We should emphasize the things that unite us and make these the only “litmus test” of what constitutes a Republican: our belief in restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty.

This litmus test wasn’t a call to purity or extremism—just the opposite. Reagan was endorsing the broadest and most inclusive definition of a Republican imaginable. If a Republican didn’t believe in these basic things, why would he call himself a Republican anyway?

With this rosy and including image in mind, Chocola draws a different picture of Democrats’ worldview:

Democrats have a corresponding set of bedrock principles, too, like abortion rights and income redistribution.

He then adds the following:

If Republicans suddenly advocated massive tax hikes on small businesses, or Democrats suddenly called for overturning Roe v. Wade, they would not be seen as inclusive, but unprincipled. If they can cave on that, what won’t they cave on? As Reagan noted, there are other issues on which ‘we can disagree among ourselves as Republicans and tolerate the disagreement.’ Barack Obama could say the same of the Democrats. Governing requires compromise, but elevating compromise itself to a principle is like building a house on sand.

What should Republicans do?

Republican politicians in particular must insist on certain principles—especially economic freedom and limited government.

To win again, the GOP cannot merely present itself as a copy of the Democrats. Republicans must draw clear distinctions between the Democrats’ principles and their own. That’s what they have been doing for more than a year now, and that’s why Republicans are more energized than they have been since 1994.

“Coicidentally”: In 1994, just like in 2010, a Democratic president is in the middle of his first term. With that in mind, back to Chocola’s concluding remarks:

For the first time in years, the GOP is returning to its roots and giving voters a reason to vote Republican again. And it is learning an old political lesson: Fight for your principles, and you get a majority, too; fight just for the majority, and you get neither.

Before I move on to Mr. Gresser’s piece, I feel a strong need to address Chocola’s framing of the abortion issue.

While talking about Reagan, conservatism and litmus tests, Chocola manages to frame Democrats as the only party with bedrock principles on the abortion issue—as if the GOP’s opposition to abortion isn’t one of their key principles. Reagan authored a book on the issue. Reagan started a trend of increased emphasis on the issue among Republican presidential hopefuls. In fact, while on the issue of “litmus tests”: every single Republican presidential nominee has supported the party platforms’ line on abortion since its introduction in 1976. Furthermore, in the same period, 8 of 16 Republican presidential candidates drifted in the direction of the party platform’s stance on abortion upon running for the presidency.

According to Mr. Chocola, President Reagan “was endorsing the broadest and most inclusive definition of a Republican imaginable.” That might be true, but only if you adhere to Chocola’s chery picked sense of reality.

Moving along.

As I mentioned in the introduction, Edward Gresser, the president of the Democratic Leadership Council, argued back in May that “pure parties are losing parties.”

Referencing Chris Chocola’s address at CPAC back in February, Gresser writes that Chocola “mixed a suggestion of bright prospects for Republicans this fall with an attack on the GOP of last fall and blamed the party’s 2006 and 2008 defeats not on the record of conservatives in government at the time but on a supposed drift away from conservatism. His solution was a purified party.”

It sounds awfully familiar. Back in 1982, Democrats were unhappy with an energetic president but gaining polling in a period of high unemployment. Lots of Democrats believed then, as many Republicans seem to now, that if we preached the true faith more often, repeated it more loudly, and denounced the president more angrily, we’d restore our fortunes. But the Democratic problem wasn’t lack of ideological purity. It was too much ideology and too few new ideas.

In 2010, Gresser argues that ideological purity “isn’t the solution to the GOP’s problems”, and that the root of their problems is “in the record conservatives built in power.” According to Gresser, “a less purified party, more open to internal dissent, would have done better” in 2006 and 2008.

Republicans shoud be frankly admitting the problem and starting a rethink. Instead, they’re shutting down debate and repeating mistakes we made a generation ago. Bad move. Republican’s don’t need ideological purity. They need self-criticism and new thinking. It’s a bit painful, but they’ll be better off. Believe me. We’ve been there.

This debate seemed pertinent back in May. And although it may seem outdated as we enter the middle of September, it can be argued that the drumming of base values is in fact an important ingredient in Democrats’ and Republicans’ pitch to voters these days:

Republicans want to extend the “Bush tax cuts.” And Democrats have turned populist, defending tax increases for the rich (a return to the level prior to the “Bush tax cuts”).

When the economy turns sour, politicians start making lemonade. And they’re not experimenting with the recipe.

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