Monday, February 23, 2009

Rick Moran takes counsel of his fears

From Rick Moran's much talked-about post:
I have read some speculation in the last few days that it may be possible for the GOP to make big gains in the House and Senate in 2010 if they "tap in" to the rage being felt by ordinary taxpayers against the savior based economy being created by Obama and the Democrats.
As a tactic, it would probably be a winner. But is there another way to achieve the same result without exacerbating the already deep divisions in American society? . . .
The inevitable populist backlash is predictable. The problem is that mass movements based on populist rage have generally led to untoward and unanticipated consequences. . . .
Tapping in to the rage of taxpayers by exploiting their fears then, would almost certainly result in unanticipated problems for the GOP. But beyond that, is this the way the Republicans wish to return to power? The Rovian strategy of using wedge issues to cleave the electorate over gay marriage, abortion, and other social issues got Republicans elected but also sowed the seeds of their own destruction.
Rick Moran is a nice guy, and you know what Leo Durocher had to say about that. But in addition to his "let's don't be divisive" problem of niceness, Rick's analysis is profoundly flawed in other ways.

Who is it that says "Rovian tactics" hurt the GOP? Uh . . . liberals, that's who. A basic problem with conservative punditry is that too often it admits the premises of liberal arguments and yet expects to reach different conclusions. This is a fatal rhetorical trap. If one accepts the premise that the objects of government are to achieve liberal goals -- "world peace," "social justice," "economic equality," etc. -- then trying to find "conservative" answers to those problems is a snipe hunt. So it is with the will-o'-th'-wisp pursuit of "bipartisan civility," a euphemism employed by Democrats to mean, "Republicans lose and shut up."

Ask yourself this: "What really hurt the GOP in the post-2004 era?"
  • The disastrous sequel to "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. More than 3,000 GIs were killed in quelling a terrorist resistance that Bush either (a) never anticipated, or (b) neglected to warn Americans about before the invasion. Through sheer power of repetition, liberals sold the "Bush lied, people died" argument to America. And one need not be a commie peacenik to believe that the entire rationale of the Iraq invasion was misbegotten.
  • The botched Social Security reform effort. Simply put, Republicans pissed off the geezers and gained nothing for it. Bush should have had Tom DeLay ram through an actual bill in the House, so that the specific facts of the proposal could be debated in the Senate. Instead, Bush tried to get the Senate to act first. Wrong move. Nothing conservative ever starts with Republican senators.
  • Amnesty for illegal aliens. Anybody who doesn't understand how poisonous this idiotic idea is with "Reagan Democrats" needs to listen to more talk radio. In early 2006, when the first amnesty was being debated in the Senate, I happened to be doing the talk-radio circuit to promote Donkey Cons. And although the book was not about immigration, the radio hosts would inevitably ask me my opinion on the issue, because audience interest was through the roof. And talk-radio callers were about 99-to-1 against amnesty. I don't care what the polls say; all the intensity on this issue is anti-amnesty. Open-border Republicans are destroying the party's support among working-class voters by pushing amnesty.
  • The economy, stupid. In retrospect, we see that the housing bubble peaked in 2006, and that economic angst was actually being felt much earlier. The Fed started pumping money into the economy in 2001, repeatedly lowering the prime rate, and the only reason we didn't notice the inevitable inflationary effect of that policy was that the CPI didn't count as inflation (a) the zoom in home prices during the bubble, or (b) the rise in stock prices. There was a "hidden inflation," concealed as rising asset value, and when everybody was complaining that college tuition was rising "faster than inflation," somebody should have thought to ask, "Hey, why isn't college tuition -- a basic expense for many middle-class households -- calculated into the CPI?"
None of these issue-specific failures of the Bush administration were the result of "Rovian tactics." So far as Rove was part of the problem, it was mainly that the big Republican wins in 2002 and 2004 convinced some people that Rove had a magic mojo that could win elections no matter what. In a word: Hubris. Or to add a few more descriptors: Arrogance and recto-cranial inversion.

If I were commissioned to write a book called Everything The Republican Party Did Wrong 2005-2008, that would be a very large book. However, since this is just a freaking blog, I'll limit myself to three quick additional observations about GOP errors:
  • The Fox Trap -- Media-wise, the GOP made the mistake of putting all its eggs in one basket. I enjoy Fox News, but it has created a syndrome where Republicans watch Fox all the time and delude themselves into thinking, "Hey, our message is getting out! We're winning!" Fact: The evening news broadcasts of ABC, NBC and CBS reach a combined audience of about 22 million; the top rated Fox News show, "The O'Reilly Factor," reaches 4 million viewers. So if the three broadcast networks are viciously biased against Republicans -- and they are -- then that anti-GOP message is reaching more than 5 times as many TV viewers as Fox.
  • Making Bush the face of "conservatism" -- As former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett documented in his book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, our 43rd president was most definitely not a conservative. His original signature issue, No Child Left Behind, was the antithesis of a conservative education policy, and Medicare Part D -- well, where to begin? Bush's unpopularity created "brand damage" for the GOP, but what he did to the public understanding of what it means to be a "conservative" was far, far worse.
  • John McCain -- How he ever got the Republican presidential nomination is one of the great mysteries of modern politics, especially considering that he got only 47% of the GOP primary vote, even though his top rival, Mitt Romney, quit the race after Super Tuesday. The chief lesson of the 2008 presidential campaign could be summed up in five words: No More Old Bald Guys.
So I'll have none of Rick Moran's concern-troll worries that there is some sort of disastrous potential in "exploiting" taxpayer outrage over the Obama/Reid/Pelsoi economic agenda. The real disasters -- the Bush administration and the McCain campaign -- are in the rearview mirror now and, as to the neo-Keynesian nonsense of "stimulus," it's never a bad time for Republicans to speak economic truth: It Won't Work.

Rick Moran sings from a familiar hymnal:
The party needs new ideas, new solutions that can be presented to the people as evidence that they have gotten beyond the past and are ready to lead the country to a bright future.
No. Wrong. What the GOP needs is not "new ideas," but rather some very old ideas, like limited government, fiscal responsibility, and economic common sense. Republicans need to be reading some Mises and Hayek -- and some Thomas Sowell -- and stop being so afraid of their own shadows.

Excuse me for recycling something I wrote in December, but in a series of American Spectator columns before and after the election, I laid out six key points about the road to Republican recovery:

  1. Don't blame yourself -- Candidates win or lose elections. Good candidates win, bad candidates lose, and John McCain was a bad candidate.
  2. Don't overthink it -- Intellectuals like to depict politics as something so complex that only they can understand it, with "big picture" themes and demographic trends that don't really translate into useful strategies. Ignore that crap.
  3. Libertarian populism -- Widespread opposition to the Wall Street bailout demonstrates that free-market ideas can be presented in a populist context that draws broad support.
  4. The morality of markets -- Don't buy into the myth that libertarians and religious conservatives are natural enemies. There needs to be a concerted effort to persuade religious conservatives to understand why limited government and free markets are consonant with Christian belief.
  5. Future ex-Democrats -- Many who voted for Obama will be disappointed at his failure to fulfill the Hope and bring about the Change he's promised. Turning that disillusionment into opposition is the basic project the Republican Party must focus on.
  6. The Obama agenda won't work -- Republicans need to re-learn the skills of opposition that have been weakened by disuse during the Bush era. Being a conservative means, among other things, believing that liberalism is wrong. Obama is a liberal, Nancy Pelosi is a liberal, Harry Reid is a liberal. Therefore, every measure that Obama, Pelosi and Reid propose is wrong, and conservatives need to say so.
John Adams said, "Facts are stubborn things." The salient fact now is that the Democratic Party's economic plan cannot lead to economic recovery. We're on our way to a 6,000 Dow, we'll see double-digit unemployment by 2010, and nothing proposed by the Democrats can possibly fix it.

In the "Revolt of the Kulaks," we see a hopeful sign that American taxpayers understand these stubborn economic facts. The task of conservatives is to supply the brains and courage to turn that fundamental understanding into an irresistible political floodtide. If an ex-Democrat can be forgiven for quoting that frontier populist Andrew Jackson: "Never take counsel of your fears."

UPDATE: "Indeed. Why would anyone get fired up about voting for a supposed alternative to liberalism that does little if anything to resist…liberalism?" Wherefore Phyllis Schlafly titled her immortal classic, A Choice, Not an Echo.

UPDATE II: Jules Crittenden has a roundup of thoughts on what's wrong with the GOP and how to fix it.

UPDATE III: "Playing nice is not a strategy (at least not a winning strategy)."


  1. Rick Moran's sole answer to "what wrong with Republicans" is that it's run by extremists who have cast out innocent moderate lambs like David Frum and Peggy Noonan.

    He is indeed a nice enough guy but he's also one of those guys who only seems to get good and fired up against conservatives.

  2. "No. Wrong. What the GOP needs is not "new ideas," but rather some very old ideas, like limited government, fiscal responsibility, and economic common sense. Republicans need to be reading some Mises and Hayek -- and some Thomas Sowell -- and stop being so afraid of their own shadows."




  3. I think you may be "Moran light" in this post.
    You've already conceded the ground of the battle to the left, by engaging on their terms.
    The simple, correct argument is the back-to-basics one.
    While the answer to problems with free speech may be more free speech, it does not follow that the answer to legislative problems is more legislation.
    "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." -- Albert Einstein

  4. Well...

    I've seen "the Rovian strategy" portrayed as "50% plus 1."

    If that is actually 'the Rovian strategy,' then I agree that it was bad for the Pubbies.

    Look at it this way: it implies that a Pubbie has to spread enough bread and circuses to capture JUST ENOUGH Lefties to win.

    IOW, you shave off a few principles here and there.

    Lombardi's famous quote that "winning is the ONLY thing" never, ever, persuaded Lombardi to dump his principles. He just worked harder on the fundamentals--which, in the end, were the winning combination, anyway.

  5. eeesh - that one left a mark. Or two.

    Nevertheless, riding a political wave of rage without any positive notion of where we should be headed usually ends up with unintended consequences. Think guillotine - well, not in our case surely. But a populist backlash against "the rich" that would only result in exacerbating the class warfare begun by Obama and the Democrats could very well be in the offing.

    Shouldn't we avoid that kind of thing? And can we do it by defining people's unease with Obama's savior based economy while offering practical, conservative solutions of our own?

    Just saying...

    Rick Moran

  6. My heart says YES! But weren´t NCLB and especially the Medicare expansion a net win in terms of popularity with the People out there? That´s what I always assumed.

    In any case, "stop being so afraid of their own shadows" really sums it up. It is important to frame our convictions in the form of positive statements and policies. Be clear what you are going to do and why it is GOOD for everyone. That is something few GOP politicans are able to do. Why? Because they have bought into the liberal narrative that conservative ideas are bad for minorities, women and "the little guy". How can you sell something if you won´t talk about its benefits?

    They also suck at marketing on every level.

  7. BTW, there is another post on TNR that predates Moran's post but is somewhat related nonetheless:

    Highly recommended reading.

  8. Rick, I very much understand the concern about tone in political discourse, but when this concern requires abandonment of winning issues that are also central to conservatism -- e.g., opposition to the remorseless expansion of federal government -- it undermines the basic purpose of the Republican Party. If all the GOP is offering is a more thrifty and efficient Welfare State (skinflint socialism), then what good is it?

  9. Thirteen28:

    Thanks for the promotion.

  10. Cahman: you're most certainly welcome, and thank you for writing such an excellent post.

  11. THIS IS THE BEST POST ON WHAT THE GOP SHOULD DO! R.S., it was Newt Gingrich who referred to Bob Dole as the tax collector for the welfare state. He was right then and would be right now. Especially about Sens. Collins, Snowe and Specter. And throw in Gov. Benedict Arnold as well! It is all about harnessing the righteous anger into constructive points and to counter this socialist tide. It is no longer liberalism the way I understand it. And, the idea of freedom is nothing new. That is what it means to me to get back to basics. We all seem to forget how LONG Ronald Reagan was a lone wolf out in the wilderness. To hear some of these people, well, there should have never been a Reagan presidency. And one believes a Republican congress in 1994.

  12. We're on our way to a 6,000 Dow, we'll see double-digit unemployment by 2010, and nothing proposed by the Democrats can possibly fix it.

    Agreed. However, reality has a way of intruding. Back when Bill Clinton signed a big (for then) tax and spending bill, Republicans rightly decried the bill's passage, stating that it would only hurt the economy. Coincidentally, we were headed into the Internet bubble boom, which caused more tax dollars to flow into the Treasury than anyone had predicted. While I don't foresee any such magic economic bullet in the offing (no one did back then, either), I would hesitate to use definitive words about what the economy will do. If, by some chance, the economy recovers despite the monstrous Porkulus bill, a majority of people will become convinced that Obama, Reid and Pelosi really know what they're doing. They don't, of course, but it's smart to be cautious.