Plus ça change . . . .

24 03 2013

“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Whether the quip is in French, that John Kerry-endorsed language of the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, or English — which conservatives would redundantly declare the “official language of the United States” just to further alienate Spanish-speaking Latinos who can appreciate that unity doesn’t require conformity (does “press one for English” really threaten the dominance of the language learned everywhere from China to Sweden?), the message is the same. That many conservatives think so little of the merits of diversity — heck, it’s just another liberal excuse to undermine the Judeo-Christian character of the nation — and would rather play to their base’s irrational fears of a linguistic and physical invasion from the south than embracing a growing new constituency speaks volumes about the state of the Republican party. Just as it’s afraid that acknowledging that some Americans speak a second language will open the door to a multicultural country they no longer recognize (funny, I don’t see a national “Spanish Only” movement to mimic the English-firsters), it’s afraid that Obama is coming for its guns and the IRS is coming for its private enterprise. Such overblown fears make it difficult for the party to attract anyone who doesn’t share its paranoid nativist fears that take a sliver of reality — waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants, the very existence of the UN — and spin them, via the intolerance of talk radio and GOP subsidiaries like Fox News, into crisis-level panic.

But the real crisis is the one the GOP is ignoring in its own backyard — and I’m not talking about the sort of backyard you can build an electrified, double-thickness fence through.

Less than a week after the conservative shindig known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Republican National Committee released the “2012 autopsy” awaited with bated breath by the D.C. establishment. RNC chairman Reince Preibus announced that “We know that we have problems. We’ve identified them, and we’re implementing the solutions to fix them.” If the report was indicative of the GOP’s best stab at solutions, the party’s future is pretty dim. Amidst the 219 prescriptions for change — which included such no-brainers as minority outreach and digital platforms that didn’t collapse on election day — were gems like a call for an “RNC Celebrity Task Force,” a particularly rich idea coming from the folks that regularly slam President Obama for hobnobbing with Hollywood royalty. “We don’t have leadership coming out of Washington. We have reality television,” crowed Sarah Palin at CPAC. Palin, it should be noted, is the erstwhile reality TV star of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” and the mother of a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.” Of course, Palin had already bailed on politics and been rejected by “Washington” when she embraced reality TV, though the same can’t be said for the teleprompter that she used at CPAC in order to castigate Obama for . . . using a teleprompter.

Sigh. Some things never change.

As comforting as it is to know that Ms. Lamestream Media will remain the same, showing up like an addict for every mainstream media outfit that signs her paycheck, Democrats can also take comfort in the fact that Palin’s entire political party is equally averse to change. The CPAC takeaway from Politico, the dramedy-heavy site that Charles Pierce calls Tiger Beat on the Potomac, is that “If there was any doubt about the huge amount of discord within the Republican Party, the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference should put it to rest.” But discord is not what you’d think; not over whether to modernize or get new ideas but how fast and hard to double down on the right-wing principles that the establishment has supposedly violated over the years. How far to the right does a party have to swing to consider John “Benghazi” McCain and Mitt “Private Equity” Romney insufficiently conservative? Karl Rove, who dared to put his fundraising muscle behind more electable candidates than Todd Akin, was a favorite punching bag, as was anyone who preached greater moderation. Marco Rubio didn’t mention immigration once during his speech.

Between Eric Cantor’s Making Life Work speech, Bobby Jindal’s admonition against being “the stupid party” and Rubio’s deliberate pander to the middle class, there has been a lot of talk about revitalizing the GOP brand. None of these speeches put forward any new ideas, however, instead hewing to the same tired Paul Ryan prescription of “limited government” and “economic freedom” that may inflame Tea Party rallies but which failed to light a fire under the larger electorate last November.  The few folks who suggest that the Republican party may have a problem with substance, not image, have been pretty much silenced. It’s not the policy, it’s the packaging! When Newt Gingrich speaks of needing “new ideas” but not “new principles,” he reduces the GOP’s challenge to figuring out a better marketing strategy for policy prescriptions not updated since Ronald Reagan was in office. “We need to do a better job of telling people who we are and what we want to do,” proclaims former Florida Rep. Allen West, who has apparently never wondered whether “what we want to do” — eviscerate the social safety net, downsize government to bathtub-drowning size, and at least in West’s case, root out the 60-odd Communists in the Democratic party — is the problem. Without citing a shred of evidence, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell assured the audience that “it may not seem like it now, but we’re actually winning.” Displaying the same aversion to reality that led Mitt Romney to assume an old, white electorate would usher him into the White House, McConnell exhorted Republicans not to “let anybody ever tell you Democrats have the upper hand on issues. I don’t care what the polls say.” Because not caring about the polls really worked well last November, didn’t it?

Dan Phieffer, the senior adviser to the guy who actually won the election, expressed amazement at the level of delusion on the right, saying that “Continuing to double down on policies that have been firmly rejected by the American people flies in the face of everything the Republican Party said they would do in the aftermath of losing the popular vote for the fifth time in the last six elections.”

The talk at CPAC may have been about rebranding, but the New York Times doesn’t even see much of an appetite for even those changes among the people who actually run the party:

In Congress, Republicans are pushing an agenda that is almost identical to the one that their party lost with in November, with no regrets and few efforts to reframe it even rhetorically.

On reform, even the young guns who topped the convention’s straw poll are, as CPAC nonentity George W. Bush might say, all hat and no cattle. The two stars of tomorrow billed as the party’s best hopes, Marco Rubio and Paul  Rand, diverge from orthodoxy on a handful of high profile issues — immigration, drones — but overall peddle the same small government rhetoric that got the party in trouble in 2012. They may be fresh faces, stoking more enthusiasm at the conservative confab than “overshadowed” former luminaries like Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor whose lackluster State of the Union rebuttal turned him into yesterday’s “future leader” and who garnered only three percent of the straw poll vote, but beneath their criticism of the establishment, they offer very little that’s actually new. While Politico, with its vested interest in crafting click-worthy narratives that emphasize conflict and controversy, believes that Rubio and Paul are “offering two very different visions for the Republican party,” the more accurate take on the ostensible gap between the two potential leaders comes from the Washington Post’s “Fix” blog, which writes that “both men are, for the most part, down-the-line conservatives, there is a tonal and attitudinal difference between the two that speaks to the choice before Republicans over these next few years.” The Times, in attempting to paint the Rubio-Paul divide as a harbinger for a 2016 showdown, resorts to describing their respective attire: “Mr. Rubio showed up in a standard-issue dark suit and blue tie. Mr. Paul, following Mr. Rubio to the lectern, shed his Senate uniform for a pair of jeans and cowboy boots.”

In his CPAC speech, Paul did push back obliquely against old party hands like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who recently referred to Paul and his likeminded followers as “wacko birds” for filibustering the CIA nomination of John Brennan, when he said that “the GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered. I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?” He advocated a greater focus on civil liberties and a retrenchment from the foreign adventurism of years past. On the surface, the libertarian Paul certainly represents a different direction for the party of Graham and McCain, with their dedication to the George W. Bush “freedom agenda” and their unflagging support for the Pentagon budget.

But how different was Paul’s prescription, really? It makes for nice headlines to project the very real split in the GOP between the reformers and the rebanders as a showdown between Paul and Rubio, and despite the lip service paid to party unity, both potential 2016 contenders have an incentive to highlight the differences over the similarities; after all, there can only be one presidential nominee in four years. But pet issues like drones and civil liberties aside, Paul and Rubio simply represent varying degrees of the same conservative brand that brought us supply-side economics and a visceral hatred for the programs of Johnson’s Great Society. The true reformers — people like Chris Christie, who are actually willing to challenge hoary Republican dogma for the good of their constituents — were nowhere near CPAC. That both Paul and Rubio have been anointed by CPAC as plausible leaders shows just how immersed in the hidebound mainstream both men are.  The Times gets a good article out of the supposed rivalry, with an attention-grabbing headline about “divisions in the GOP” being “laid bare” at CPAC, and both Rubio and Paul indeed fired up their respective bands of supporters,bringing activists looking for victory in 2016 to their feet” in Politico’s description. It’s a stretch, however, to think that Paul would really “reshape the party’s foreign policy” or transform the GOP into an unrecognizable band of isolationists, as the Times suggests. For one thing, to actually win the nomination and secure the backing of deep pocketed defense contractors and Wall Street bigwigs, Paul would have to slide so far in alignment with his party that he, not the the rest of the GOP, would no longer be recognizable.

Even today, he is hardly the renegade that the Times portrays him as. Beyond his veneer of civil liberties, what else does Paul have to offer besides radically downsized government and the same you’re on your own rhetoric that led a GOP crowd to cheer the idea, advanced by Paul’s father, that a young man without health insurance be allowed to die in the street? Paul’s “new ideas” are merely a nice new libertarian sticker on tired old supply-side rhetoric. Rubio is even blunter in his denial of the need for change. “We don’t need a new idea,” he  boldly told the CPAC crowd on Thursday. “There is an idea, it’s called America, and it still works.” Introduced as the Republican who  “epitomizes our road to victories in 2014 and 2016,” the Tea Party favorite delivered a speech that even National Review seemed to concede was full of shopworn dogma:

Rubio outlined familiar conservative ideas focused on the middle class, such as pro-growth tax and energy policies, school choice, encouraging “career education,” and solving the nation’s debt crisis, a burden on the economy and future generations, without raising taxes.

Liberal media outlets like Salon homed in on the less tolerant aspects of Rubio’s speech, as well as his strange avoidance of his signature issue, immigration. It is Rubio’s refusal to change along with an electorate that is increasingly accepting of gay marriage and other conservative anathema that make the Weekly Standard’s description of Rubio’s brand of politics as “big tent conservatism” so puzzling. Just because you say you welcome dissent clearly doesn’t mean you do: Rubio confirmed his opposition to same-sex marriage and denied that he is close-minded “just because I believe that life, all life, at all stages of development, deserves to be protected.” Rather, “The people who are closed-minded in our society are the ones who love to preach about climate science but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception.” ” (This is the same “science,” apparently, that can’t tell Rubio how old the Earth is.) All these 1950s positions should be embarrassing to someone so frequently advertised as the party’s future — though given that, the day after Rubio’s speech, North Dakota passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, banning the procedure around 6 weeks, it’s hard to argue that he’s too out of step with his party — but I will give Rubio some credit. Salon fumes that he “offered up a serving of red meat to the audience at CPAC” by “calling liberals freeloaders,” but come on. The guy was making an awkward attempt at humor, joking of middle-class Americans, “They’re not freeloaders. They’re not liberals.” Lighten up, Salon.

But Rubio’s eschewal of “new ideas,” as if anything new should automatically be suspect, could hardly have come as a surprise to John Boehner, who confidently tells the Times that “candidates and personalities — not Republican proposals on Medicare and spending cuts — accounted for the party’s defeats.” This is a mentality that holds that the GOP just needs to explain its ideas better, or perhaps to make small tweaks in strategy — hire digital consults whose technology doesn’t fail on election day, mimic the Democrats’ superior voter targeting and get-out-the vote efforts, bolster the sort of community outreach the Obama campaign excelled at — in order to come roaring back.

When Rubio says that “the people of America have not changed — what’s changed is the world around us,” he means that Americans are still hard workers with inherently conservative values, but he unconsciously gets at a larger truth: The GOP is still playing to the America of 20 years ago, when minorities could be pacified with an immigration pander and not actual policies that improve their lives, and comments about legitimate rape could be dismissed as crackpot outliers. In an advertising-industry analysis of the last election, Fast Company makes this observation about the choir Rubio is preaching to:

Turning to who “bought” the Republican brand in the last presidential election (per Gallup) you find the Republican party did well among men, whites, the religious, married people, those making $35K and over and the 65 and older segment. However, many of these segments (whites, married, religious) are becoming a relatively smaller portion of the electorate.

It’s a choir that even Republicans admitno longer represents mainstream America.” It’s a hard lesson to swallow, that the Republican mainstream is no longer synonymous with the American mainstream, and it’s one that the GOP has not yet learned. In part, this is because they haven’t had to. Just one in ten Republican voters in 2012 was not white. Census data compiled by the Cook Political Report shows that, though non-Hispanic whites dropped from 69 to 64 percent of the population between 2000 and 2010, redistricting and the geographic clustering of minorities in Democratic-leaning urban areas actually left Republican House districts whiter than before. The average Republican district is now 75 percent white, up from 73 percent, leading National Journal to observe that “House Republicans have done a remarkable job of “sequestering” Democrats into the minority, but in the process they’ve also reduced their own incentive to reach out to groups their party badly needs if it wants to stay relevant beyond the Southern confines of the Capitol.”

Such demographic trends make minority outreach dangerous for your run-of-the-mill Republican lawmaker. No matter how much the party’s long-term future depends on broadening its appeal, in the short-term alienating its traditional base has few benefits. Even Rand Paul, who made news after CPAC by seemingly attempting to get right with the immigration-friendly wing of the party, spoke of a path to legalization but pointedly did not include the word “citizenship,” as his post-speech reassurances to irate conservatives demonstrated. An op-ed he wrote for the Washington Times was titled “From Illegals to Taxpayers,” indulging not only in language (“illegals”) sure to turn off Hispanics but advancing the canard that illegal immigrants are moochers, when in fact they contribute payroll taxes that, without citizenship, will never be returned to them as Social Security or Medicare benefits. (Of course, the calculation changes if you factor in the benefits that accrue to illegal workers’ citizen children.) Matthew Continetti, a staunch right-winger who married into Kristol family royalty and edits the unhinged “Friends of Hamas” newspaper Washington Free Beacon, writes in the Weekly Standard:

The domestic proposals that have the greatest chance of making the Republican party attractive to the “coalition of the ascendant”—immigrants, members of the millennial generation, single white women—involve far more government intervention in the economy than the GOP coalition—married white people, Wall Street, the Tea Party—will allow.

That is exactly the problem on display at CPAC, and it’s a problem that the GOP seems determined to address by pushing the same old agenda of, in the words of Jeb Bush, “greater individual responsibility, more personal freedom, smaller and more effective government.” The real mystery is why supposed reformers like Bush think even average Americans closer to the traditional Republican base, much less minorities with a friendlier attitude toward government, will be attracted to the concepts that failed to ignite their interest in 2012.

Somehow, the party believes the middle class will sign on to a budget that goes against all its interests, from investing in the future of its children to revoking the ACA subsidies that would help 50 million people – many of them members of this same class – obtain health care. As heterodox conservative economics blogger Josh Barro writes at Bloomberg, Ryan’s regressive budget, which would either explode the deficit to hand a 20 percent tax cut to millionaires or raise taxes on the middle class through the elimination of the popular deductions and preferences necessary to pay for his $5.7 trillion hole in federal revenue, is a hard sell for a reason:

Soul-searching Republicans have identified lots of problems with the party: “tone,” an inability to relate to minorities, actual and perceived retrograde positions on social issues, a loss of credibility on foreign policy. These are all very real problems. But they pale in comparison to the fact that the party’s economic agenda, as embodied in the latest Ryan budget, is simply terrible for the vast majority of Americans.

The Atlantic concurs, agreeing with the Tax Policy Center that Ryan’s potential deficits “can only be made up by eliminating the biggest (and most popular) tax breaks,” a process that Ryan alludes to under the anodyne rhetoric of “tax reform” that disguises the consequences of paying for his rate reductions:

He would almost certainly have to tax employer-paid health care, mortgage interest, charitable donations … the list goes on and on. Ryan doesn’t say what he could cut because it would be despicably unpopular, even more so than his proposed cuts.

Further emphasizing Ryan’s difficulty in achieving his deficit-neutral goal, there is only a grand total of $2 trillion in itemized deductions in the tax code he could eliminate. That tax increase on the middle class — the same one Romney was accused of tacitly endorsing during the election — is looking likelier and likelier. Derek Thompson writes, also at The Atlantic, that the “simplified version” of the Ryan plan is to “save the rich, spare the old, forget the poor.” It is “essentially a vision of America where deficits fall because government assistance to the poor and sick rapidly shrinks. It solves our income inequality problem like a flamethrower helps a house fire.” Ryan himself cautions against “cutting spending indiscriminately,” and he’s right — he doesn’t cut willy-nilly. He very deliberately goes after the sickest and most vulnerable. When the Ryan budget passed the House, Rep. Barbara Lee of California quipped that Ryan’s so-called “Pathway to Prosperity” was more accurately described as the “Pathway to Poverty.”

For a party that claims to respect the invisible hand of free market, in which individuals acting in their own best interests produce the best possible outcome, Republicans seem oblivious to the reality that their own policies are unattractive to most Americans because they pay for perks for the wealthy at the expense of the other 99 percent of the nation. As Washington Rep. Jim McDermott said, mocking the oft-invoked conservative trope that the federal government should be tightening its belt just like a family cutting its spending (a family that apparently prints its own currency), “I don’t know any family in America that would use their children’s lunch money to pay down their credit cards.” Deficit reduction polls well, but the public votes with its feet, not Rasmussen survey responses, and asking John Q. Public to care more about the Treasury’s finances than unemployment and his next meal is a hard ask. (That’s why it’s so convenient to terrify people with apocalyptic scenarios of a debt-ridden, broke America.) Only in a fantasy world will better branding lead people to support dogma that indicts them as moochers and asks for the self-inflicted pain of austerity in return for the wonderful moral high ground of being “makers,” not takers. Even the GOP’s own polling bears this out. A survey commissioned by Eric Cantor’s Young Guns Network came to conclusions that, to no one’s surprise, track quite nicely with the Majority Leader’s own beliefs as laid out in his “Making Life Work” speech. Politico reports that the poll “shows that even Americans concerned about deficits and debt are far more concerned with their own personal economic well-being.” Perhaps it’s fitting that this directly contradicts the wisdom of Paul Ryan, who continues to swear that his austere budget is “what people want” and whose stab at the vice presidency was famously derailed by, uh, ignoring the polls.

John Murray, who heads the YG Network, confirmed that the poll was “specifically designed to challenge the assumption that spending cuts as a central theme is sufficient.”

It’s not that spending restraint is a bad issue for conservatives, according to Murray; it’s just not enough, on its own, to drive middle-class support for a center-right policy vision.

The problem is, beyond spending cuts and the national debt, the GOP doesn’t have much to offer. Conservatives have long discouraged the GOP from becoming the “party of less.” In this formulation, Republicans lose when they bill themselves as wanting to offer aid to the poor — just less aid than Democrats promise — or supporting investment in education and infrastructure — just at a lower level than liberals. It’s a good point, but the sad truth is that the GOP is the party of less. Its “center-right policy” vision is based on supply-side economics and concern for the “producer class” that doesn’t garner middle class support for the simple reason that it doesn’t benefit the middle class.

Even this startlingly honest bit of reporting from Politico, which seems to pretty accurately reflect the thinking of both parties, reveals just what a blow to the average American the policies of the GOP’s balanced budget would be:

Then again, is it balanced for Ryan to take two-thirds of his savings from low- and moderate-income households? Or is he balancing the tax hike on the wealthy in January with an almost equal $800 billion in savings from the likes of Pell Grants, food stamps or the earned income tax credit?

Even if you accept the latter argument, the fact is that Republicans disdain the progressive nature of the tax code. They will never ask those most able to contribute to pay more without exacting an equal pound of flesh from people who can barely afford to put food on the table. How does the middle class win when taxes on the class who has reaped 99% of the income growth of the past decade must be offset by reductions in benefits to those whose income has actually declined?

Nowhere is this philosophy on starker display than CPAC, which shunned the populist Chris Christie (whose poll numbers are in the 70s) for certified one-percenter Mitt Romney (the “severely conservative” governor who couldn’t break 50 percent of the population). Romney reminds Republicans that “We particularly need to hear from the Governors of the blue and purple states, like Bob McDonnell, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Susanna Martinez, Chris Christie” . . . . True, but wouldn’t it be helpful, then, to invite McDonnell and Christie to shindigs like CPAC? The funny thing is, CPAC fails not only as a revamp of substance but as a rebranding opportunity as well. Let’s assume that you can win over minorities and female voters simply by dropping the words “middle class” into a few speeches, that you can combat surveys in which respondents characterize the GOP as “for the wealthy” and “not for the people”

Your new brand is now the Party of the Middle Class, even if the stuff inside is still the same. If that’s true, does it make sense for your brand ambassadors to be Donald Trump and Mitt Romney? Does it make sense to pair an attempt to chart a new course for the party, as Marco Rubio tried to do with his strong denunciation of the 47 percent trope that got the GOP into such trouble in November, with the very guy who came up with the 47 percent? The extent of the conservative delusion is evident in a National Review post in which Betsey Woodruff enthuses that the former presidential candidate “won the hearts of just about everyone at CPAC” with “a speech that felt like classic Mitt.” Classic Mitt: winning hearts but not elections. Romney himself actually hit the nail on the head, saying that “As someone who just lost the last election I’m probably not in the best position to chart the course for the next one.”

It’s like launching a mission to raise the Titanic and commissioning the White Star Line to do the job. CPAC’s organizers maintain that, by including Romney, they’re just keeping the tent wide. But just as they preach tolerance of the guy who demonized the poor, they’ve slammed the door – or lowered the flap, if we’re still using the tent metaphor – on those like gay-rights supporters GOProud who offer only mild criticism of bigots. (For what it’s worth, the GOProud founder did toss Rubio a bone, saying that he did not believe those who opposed gay marriage were necessarily bigots.)

Try as he might to shake off the effects of Romney’s distaste for those “who will never take responsibility for their lives” Rubio couldn’t quite get away from the fact that Romney’s position represents the fundamental belief of the Republican party – and, at heart, Rubio himself – that the nation is divided between moral, upstanding makers and mooching, lazy takers. In his “no-teleprompter paean to the common” that attempted to distance himself from Romney’s rhetoric, he defends the hypothetical middle-class family the GOP should be targeting:

They paid their mortgages on time, and now they have to pay the bill for bailing out the banks that caused [the crisis] They think one side is fighting for the people who have made it, and all the other side does is fight for government policies to pay for the people who are struggling.

But such lines are hardly the “anti-47-percent” the Washington Post thinks they are. Rubio unwittingly endorses the idea that no one who makes a mistake deserves government help, that we should all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that those who defaulted on their mortgages did so out of irresponsibility and greed and not because they were bankrupted by medical bills or left at the mercy of the stock market. This is convenient, as the GOP is offering absolutely zero prescriptions to deal with either dilemma. It tells the poor that the free market is the answer for their problems, ironically promoting solutions like “school choice” for the same low-income earners and welfare recipients that it doesn’t trust to stay off drugs without mandatory testing or to look for a job without the prod of expiring unemployment benefits. (Giving people choices is great if it kills off public education, but bad if it actually, you know, trusts people with real choices.) At heart, conservatives don’t trust the average voter — the “low information Obama voter,” as low-information pundit Dick Morris might say — any more than they trust those who did default on their mortgages or have taken advantage of government benefits. Rubio seems to think that “the people who are struggling” — the people liberals are paying off — are not the same morally upstanding folks who psychically predicted a layoff and thus never took out a mortgage they couldn’t afford. He still divides the honorable potential Republican — the “they” of his speech — from anyone in the position to rely on “government policies.” So much for bootstraps; in Rubio’s vision, the people getting paid by the government will never be the people paying the bills. The world is irrevocably split between that 47 percent of responsibility-phobic people that the GOP will never win over and the 53 percent of honest taxpayers who just need to be shown the conservative light.

Particularly telling was the fact that the strongest castigation of establishment Republicans came not from someone looking forward to 2014 but from Jim DeMint, who instead looked backward to 2010 and asserted, without much evidence, that the reason the GOP lost was that it was not conservative enough. “In 2012, with the presidential election on the line, national Republican leadership rejected the lessons of 2010 and went back the old way of campaigning.” The 2010 election, in which a wave of Tea Partiers swept into office on a wave of anti-Obamacare fervor, apparently taught DeMint that “conservatives shouldn’t give up on repealing Obama’s health-care reform law and and declared a hard line on immigration.” Likewise, Rick Perry, another failed presidential candidate with enough establishment cred to wrangle a CPAC invite, doubled down on this notion in his own speech:

The popular media narrative, it’s that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals as evidenced by the last two presidential elections. That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012.

A certain severely conservative governor and a vp candidate with the most regressive and radical budget in modern times might have something to say to that. honestly, how much more committed to dismantling the welfare state does demint think Reoublicans need to be? Slashing Medicaid by 40 percent just doesn’t cut deep enough? 33 votes to repeal Obamacare just weren’t enough? (Surely that 34th time would have been the charm.)

More accurate than any dramatic intonations about the “starkly different paths” supposedly laid about by Rubio and Paul back to prominence are headlines like this one from Politico: “CPAC Muddle Mirrors GOP Mess,” which emphasizes not a superficial libertarian-conservative split as the source of the party’s confusion but the very existence of a throwback confab like CPAC, where birthers and hucksters are in and pragmatic election winners are out, in the first place. Nothing that happens at the conference will showcase the GOP’s inability to reckon with the future more than the continued prominence of the conference itself, which the Politico article characterizes as “more carnival than conservative salon.” Still, the inside-the-Beltway website is correct to point out that it’s not what happens at CPAC itself but the controversy surrounding it that reflects the party’s utter confusion over its future. Publicity hounds and TV personalities like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are given speaking berths alongside isolationists like Rand Paul and Very Serious budget wonks like Paul Ryan, but the sitting Republican governors who are actually charting the party’s future are excluded for being insufficiently right-wing. When Politico writes that “the GOP’s identity crisis that now’s being reflected by CPAC,” it’s clear that the crisis is manifested not only in who is invited into the CPAC tent but who is kept outside it. Along with the ousting of GOProud, this rejection of the most plausible future leaders in favor of the Rubio-Rand-Cruz “trio of senators with far fewer substantive accomplishments but a far tighter emotional bond with the GOP base” shows that the Republican establishment will continue to eschew any real calls for change.

Of course, it may matter little that outsiders see little difference in the rhetoric emanating from the supposedly divergent wings of the Republican party represented at CPAC. To liberals, the GOP may look as backwards and conservative as ever, but as long as Republicans are convinced of their own disunity, they may offer enough of an opening for Democrats to win elections. If the party is consumed by the overblown differences between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, it may find itself mired in a 2016 repeat of 2012, when a bitterly fought primary pitted right-wingers against super-right-wingers. The contest was billed as a fight for the future of the Republican party, yet to skeptical observers, it looked like a beat-down between a guy opposed to abortion and gay marriage and a circus of guys and gals really opposed to abortion and gay marriage. Now, as Paul and Rubio battle to present the “newest” path to the White House — will it be immigration reform or ending airport patdowns? — the party is truly convinced it must choose between two wildly different paths. Rank-and-file members are lining up behind the faction they see as ascendant, with Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole saying after CPAC that “Historically, the GOP is a coalition of social, economic and national security conservatives,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “That is unlikely to change. The Rubio/Bush faction of the Republican Party recognizes this reality. Many in the libertarian wing of the party do not.” Meanwhile, that same Rubio/Bush faction is being slammed by pundits more hostile to the establishment; Ann Coulter’s own CPAC speech drew applause when she said, “I can see why Democrats would want amnesty, but why on earth are Marco Rubio and these endless Bushes supporting it?. No wonder that the Washington Post writes that “Parties that find themselves in the political wilderness often take an “eat their own” mentality in the near term.” This magnification of minor differences may prove to be a distraction useful for Democrats. As long as the Republican party faithful, abetted by media reports that dramatize the idea that “you could be forgiven for thinking that there were two Republican parties on display over the last few days” at CPAC, is convinced that the party is in disarray, it may as well be.

If Republicans have any advantage going into 2016, its one that has little to do with CPAC. Despite a dearth of new ideas — is there any clearer sign of this than the continued fealty to Reagan, and the relative amnesia for any supposed accomplishments of the three Republican presidents who succeeded him? — the GOP is not equally lacking in the personality department. Whether they were invited to the increasingly irrelevant CPAC or not, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio offer st least superficially attractive mouthpieces for the future of the party. None except perhaps Paul diverges much from the tired Reagan rhetoric, but all excite broad cross sections of the GOP and inject new blood into a party that has too often been rooted in the past. What was Mitt Romney’s candidacy, after all, than a replay of his failed 2008 bid, with 2008 assumptions about the demographic composition of the electorate and America’s hunger for a cool-headed but cold-hearted economic manager to boot? There’s the looming return of the Bush dynasty, but Jeb’s bungled rollout on immigration revealed a party that has moved beyond that relic of the 20th century. Paul’s rant on drones, not any carefully hedged policy prescriptions from Bush, captured the attention of the younger, media-savvy voters who hold the keys to the party’s future. The Democrats, on the other hand, seem firmly mired in dynastic politics, with a thin back bench of governors from which to pick a 2016 candidate and a paucity of dynamic second stringers like the aggressive Ted Cruz. Of course, these troubles are also the fruits of success; by winning the presidency, Obama ensured his place at the center of the Democratic Party, leaving little room or necessity for another charismatic leader to emerge. But the party is also hemmed in by an aging congressional leadership, with even the successors to Nancy Pelosi belonging to an older generation than Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio. That the brightest democratic stars are the relatively untested Elizabeth Warren and the nationally inexperienced San Antonio mayor, Julian Castro, shows the thinness of the Democratic ranks. Rep. Chris Van Hollen has received some positive liberal press as a possible successor to Pelosi, but he lacks the spark, profile and defining issue of, say, Rand Paul.

Of course, it’s not a bad thing that Democrats have not produced a showy, extremist counterpart to Paul or Cruz; in fact, Ezra Klein muses that this continued commitment to centrism as the GOP has shifted sharply to the right has helped Democrats maintain control of the Senate, where broad-based appeal is more crucial to winning statewide races than it is in sweeping a homogeneous, gerrymandered House district. But the biggest Democratic names floated for 2016 are of another generation: Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, the ultimate elephant (donkey?) in the room. The liberal spotlight is hogged not only by a sitting president but by the wife of the last one. Until Clinton — it is difficult not to call her simply “Hillary,” which is due not so much to her gender as to the fame of that other Clinton, just like Jeb Bush is known by his first name and not his last — makes up her mind, no one else will dare to seriously step forward. Even if New York’s Andrew Cuomo or Maryland’s Martin O’Malley is brave enough to float talk of a bid, the reluctance of deep-pocketed donors to commit to a candidate other than Clinton will stymie their efforts. The GOP is hampered by no such dutiful nods to the past; if Cuomo or Newark Mayor (and Twitter star) Cory Booker were Republicans, their profiles would surely be higher. There is simply more elbow room on the conservative side of the aisle. It’s an interesting inversion; the party that seems most resistant to change actually has the younger and more dynamic standard bearers, while the party that appeals not only to young people but the changing face of the American electorate is stuck with dynasties rooted in the last century. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had a point when he said at CPAC, “Don’t tell me Democrats are the party of the future when their presidential ticket for 2016 is shaping up to look like a rerun of the ‘Golden Girls,'” though one might question whether all the young blood in the world is enough to make the party of immigration hard-liners and forced childbearing the “party of the future.” (One might also question how Joe Biden would fit in with the Girls.)

The Washington Post’s Fix blog weighs in:

For GOPers looking to update their brand, it’s also helpful that the new crop of Republicans that has quickly moved to the forefront of the 2016 conversation is mostly youthful, in political years. Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) are in their 40s. Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) are 50. At 60, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) is the eldest. But he’d still be younger on Election Day than the previous two GOP presidential nominees.

Part of the Democratic youth appeal is luck, and not just the luck personified by 2008’s young, barrier-breaking senator from Illinois. The fastest growing demographic groups, like Latinos, are also groups with a traditionally strong liberal lean, even on issues beyond immigration. This is less because Democrats gathered in a smoke-filled room in the 1950s and plotted about which groups to target to maintain an electoral advantage (oh, that the left were so organized!) but because the policies which help poorer and traditionally marginalized groups have happened to come from one side of the aisle. Had America seen a boomlet of Wall Street millionaires or old white guys, the GOP would be the one sitting pretty and looking prescient. Of course, parties make conscious decisions about their policies, and the GOP had plenty of chances to adjust to the changing electorate. Until now, they just haven’t had to; the white population that makes up their base was sufficient to win elections, and a party that’s winning in the moment is, to its detriment, under little pressure to think about the future. It took a series of losses in the 1990s for the Democratic Party to wake up, retriangulate and make a concerted slide to the center in the empowerment of the centrist Democratic Leadership Conference and the selection of a charismatic governor from Arkansas who would declare the era of big government to be over. But today, even in victory, Democrats find it easier to adjust to the shifting priorities of the electorate on issues from gay marriage to immigration.

President Obama won reelection, but he hasn’t stopped evolving on gay rights; he shows little of the complacency toward tomorrow’s voters that the GOP showed during the Bush years. Perhaps this is to he expected, as conservatism by definition seeks to preserve the best traditions from the past and sees its mission as “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop.” If you think Western civilization was generally on the right track before those uppity women elbowed their way into the labor force and people stopped outsourcing their morality and ideas about sexuality to the Bible, your party will naturally have less appeal to those who think differently or who are more amenable to changing with the times. Republicans like Marco Rubio are convinced that those changes aren’t as deep or profound as Democrats would like to think; at their core, he believes, most Americans still cling to conservative virtues of individualism and hard work. Despite reams of survey data to the contrary, he believes most people still oppose same sex marriage, even as fellow Republicans like Rob Portman rethink their stances in light of, you know, reality. Portman revealed recently that his son is gay, leading to tepid praise from liberals who noted that, though Portman suddenly got empathy on an issue personally effecting his family, he doesn’t seem to have used the opportunity to reevaluate his position on other issues on which his party’s lack of empathy might hurt people. “Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut,” Matt Yglesias writes bluntly. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.” Like Sarah Palin, who detested government spending with the notable exception of that which benefited her disabled son, the GOP in general has a hard time reaching out to a wider population because it refuses to look at problems like poverty and immigration through the eyes of anyone who is not just like themselves. Here’s Yglesias again:

The great challenge for a Senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

For all their faults, Democrats have been better able to do this than Republicans, and it has paid off. “Portman is going to be treated as self-serving by majorities on both sides,” frets Daniel Foster at National Review, and he’s right — because Portman, and the rest of his conservative colleagues, are indeed self-serving. “Empathy is a crucial moral virtue, but it isn’t always the best guide to public-policy debates, pace our friends on the left,” Foster writes, without explaining what could replace empathy on issues like gay marriage, which hardly come down to cut-and-dry economics and which are approached on the right with as many emotional appeals — same-sex couples will change society, ergo their unions must be bad public policy — are on the left.

Rubio, in his contention that “the people of America have not changed,” grossly overestimates more than how quickly Americans getting ahead of him. He overestimates as well the GOP’s monopoly on good ideas, and perhaps even overestimates the degree to which selfish, you’re-on-your-own politics ever appealed to a nation that seems quite content to speak out of one side of its mouth about reducing wasteful spending while simultaneously being quite content with the personal benefits they reap from big government programs of the Great Society. Even those who consider themselves part of the put-upon “maker class” (though there is a 53 percent chance that they actually don’t earn enough to contribute more than payroll taxes) readily take advantage of the very safety net that conservatives keep insisting fosters dependence and passivity. Demonizing the 47 percent is a winning strategy only if you are absolutely sure you have the votes of the other 53 percent; unfortunately for Mitt Romney, though less than half the country pays income taxes, more than half reaps the benefits of programs like Medicare and Social Security, and more than half are concerned less with the mounting deficits they fret about to pollsters than about policies that work in the real world to help them find jobs (or survive the loss of one), educate their children (school choice only goes so far if half the schools you can choose from are starved of funds), and marry whom they choose. If you write off nearly half of the electorate before you even start campaigning, there is little margin for error. At CPAC, however, that lesson seemed lost on Republicans, who seem content to tinker with their ever narrowing and frequently insufficient margins.

It’s bad news for the GOP, perhaps, but I am short on pity. The giant reptiles of the Jurassic died out because they were unable to adapt, a sad turn of events for the T. Rex and the Triceratops but a definite plus for the small, furry mammals better suited to the new environment, who moved in to fill the void left by the dinosaurs. Here’s hoping that Democrats are the war-blooded ancestors of Buzzfeed’s “101 Great Corgis” slideshow . . . and that Republicans stick to the positions that make them the doomed characters from The Land Before Time.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: