Saturday, June 14, 2014

Orthodox Republicanism after Eric Cantor

David Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor should comfort neither establishment Republicans nor Democrats.  His victory portends threats to both parties.  For Republicans, it suggests a continued ideological divide, for Democrats, a vital threat in 2014 to the electoral prospects.

Until Brat’s victory, many declared dead the Tea Party insurgency within the Republican Party.  But the Tea Party is more than simply a group of people or a fringe organization.  It is an attitude and ideology. The Tea Party movement, with language describing some GOP members as RINOS (Republican in Name Only), questions the ideology and political views of party, raising the question:  What is orthodox Republicanism today?

The contemporary battle for the Republican orthodoxy begins in 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged the Rockefeller wing for dominance.  Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty” speech was a repudiation of New Deal accommodation that Eisenhower, Jacob Javits, and the Nelson Rockefeller wing had reached.  Goldwater may have lost the election but he propelled the GOP in a direction that first triumphed with Reagan’s victory in 1980 and his inaugural speech  declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.

The Reagan coalition blended together often contradictory movements of economic liberty and social conservativism.  The former requires a minimalist state protecting individual choice, the later an activist one second-guessing freedom. While ideological, it was still willing to compromise within its party and with Democrats, producing notable and important legislation such as the 1986 tax reform and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.  From 1980 to 2008 the Reagan brand defined the party.  But beginning with the presidency of George Bush in 2001, and clearly by its end the Reagan  brand had worn thin and when McCain ran and lost in 2008 it was clear that Reaganism was dead.  Obama’s victory, along with Democratic gains in 06-08, signaled that change, whatever it meant, was preferred to Reaganism.

But the seeds of Reagan’s demise in McCain’s 2008 loss produced the heir of a new Republicanism in Sarah Palin.  Palinism seeks to balance the social conservatism and economic liberty of Reaganism, but it takes seriously the Goldwater extremism speech in its hyperactive purism and refusal to compromise..  Palinism takes aim at the New Deal, combining it with nativism and constitutionalism that came to a head in the formation of the Tea Party and its mantra “I want my country back.”

Palin is toast, but her spirit lives on. The Palin makeover of the GOP combines Goldwaterism and Reaganism with a cult of personality  a multi-media advertising campaign, and a dose of Ayn Rand libertarianism.  But Palinism is also built on what historian Richard Hofstadter labeled the paranoid style in American politics.  It is a anti-intellectual world view nurtured in fear–a fear that outside forces are threatening a way of life that includes faith in Christianity, capitalism, and the Constitutionalism.  This paranoid style, incubated in the Puritan theology of the seventeenth century as described by Perry Miller in his classic 1956 Errand into the Wilderness, was premised upon a theory of uncertainty of salvation, fear of evil, and the omnipresent threat of outsiders who were not part of the church and community.  For Hofstadter and Miller, the paranoid style of fear and prejudice produced notable events such as the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism.

Puritanism and the paranoid ethos both contain an orthodoxy and powerful internal contradictions. Both believe in the righteous and absolute certainty of their truths and in a demonification of challengers.  Both eschew reason for fear, and both necessitate a strong state to suppress evil and  preserve God and American values, even at the expense of freedom for some.  Facts are not important–they stand in the way of truth.   Liberals and MSNBC commentators fail to understand the Tea Party world view.  It is a new orthodoxy that goes right to the heart of politics, asking and questioning the most basic question, “Why government?”

This new orthodoxy draws its roots from this Puritanism and paranoid style .  But it is driven less so from the pulpit than by Fox news, conservative talk radio, and blogs in search of profits and ratings.  Tea Partyism is less a coherent ideology or world view than it has yielded a paranoid attitude mixed in with a branding effort to make money.  It is a brand built on populist anger, anti-government feelings, opposition to immigration, gays, abortion, Democrats, and anything else that inspires fear, so long as it sells.

The new orthodoxy has two wings–The libertarianism of Rand Paul committed to some type of libertarianism, and the Ted Cruz populist politics.  While both revolve around less government and less taxes, they differ on civil liberties and the role of the US in the world.  Whatever their anti-governmentism is, their views and that of many Tea Party members are hypocritical.  Yes less government and taxes, but still I deserve my Social Security check and Medicare because I deserve it, others do not.  There is also a hypocrisy in that the areas of the country that most strongly espouse  anti-government views are the ones with the greatest poverty, uninsured, lower per capita incomes, and the greatest percentage of money coming to their states from the federal government.  Less government for thee, not me.
So what orthodox Republicanism now?   Tea Party GOP rebranding is a multi-media cult of personality that draws upon the anger and fear of many that their way of life is threatened and that someone else is to blame for it.  If only government, gays, immigrants, abortionists, Democrats, and RINOS did not exist, we could take back our country and prosper again.  This is what orthodox Republicanism is, the marketing of a politics of fear.

For all of the contradictions within the new Republican orthodoxy, Democrats should not take comfort.  Yes such a new orthodoxy threats to split the Republican Party, sending them further to the right, putting them out of sync with the median voter, and thereby making it more difficult for them to win elections.   But this might only matter with national presidential elections.  As Democrats saw in 2010, turnout is lower in non-presidential elections years, benefitting Republicans.  What the Tea Party brings to the Republicans is passion–passion is essential to electoral success. Passionate candidates and voter win.  Democrats have little passion going for them in local races in non-presidential election years.  Moreover, today as it was back in 2010, Democrats lack a narrative to counteract the Tea Party.  Four years the Democrats ether lacked a narrative, or simply said the Tea Party was nuts, or they simply expected them to self-implode.  They are taking the same road again this year, perhaps with equally disastrous results.

The new Republican orthodoxy is the child of Obama–has taken up the banner of “change” and it  is using their narrative, also with fear, to advance an agenda that challenges the mainstream of both the Republican and Democratic parties

Monday, June 2, 2014

Handicapping the 2014 Minnesota Republican Chances

    The 2014 Minnesota election season has officially begun.  The legislative session is over, the candidate filing period has begun, and the Green and Independence parties have already had their nominating conventions and the Republicans just selected Mike McFadden and Jeff Johnson to challenge AL Franken and Mark Dayton for senator and governor respectively. The GOP convention also touched off the effort by the Republicans to reclaim the House of Representatives. Let’s consider some possibilities affecting the Republicans’ prospects this fall.  Two factors will be considered: The political math and the narrative.

Political Math
    First do the math.  Mark Dayton is the DFL incumbent who latest approval rating according to an April Survey USA poll was 49% (40% disapproval), down from a February Minnesota Poll that had him at 58% (29% disapproval).    The February Minnesota Poll had DFL incumbent  Senator Al Franken’s approval at 55% (34% disapproval) and the Survey USA poll placed him at  46% approval (42% disapproval).  Either these two polls reveal a shift in public opinion against them or different survey methodologies, questions, and margins of errors demonstrating small shifts in popularity.  In either case, Dayton looks far better in the polls than Franken, with the latter making some marginal if not significant gains in the polls compared to his narrow margin of victory six years ago.  But beyond the poll numbers, both candidates have significant fund raising leads over an possible opponents.
    All 134 members of the Minnesota House of Representatives are up for election.  The DFL hold a 73-61 majority.  Republicans need to pick up 7 seats to capture the majority. Fourteen  House members have announced retirements, 10 GOP and four DFL.  Open seats are generally easier to switch parties than those occupied by incumbents, however, not all of these seats are in swing districts.  Michael Paymar is retiring in St Paul and there is little chance the Republicans can pick up this seat.  Similarly Mary Liz Holberg is retiring from her seat in Lakeville and there is little chance for the DFL to pick this up.  Best estimates are that the total number of real swing seats is  in the range of 8-15 seats, with about 12 being the most likely number.  Thus, the GOP need to hold all their current seats, including open ones, and then pick up another seven to take control of the House.  Not an impossible task, but certainly a difficult one. 
    The State Republican Party is in better financial situation than it was two years ago but it is still not where it should be and it is probably behind the DFL in terms of fundraising.  The Republican House caucus may be doing better  in comparison and may get closer to what their DFL rivals have.  However, the issue is less in terms of how they are doing in fundraising overall but more in terms of how money may get channeled to specific House races.  Finally, there are unknown variables such as how recent court decisions striking down campaign finance laws may benefit either party.
    Finally, consider two last numbers.  First, Minnesota leads the nation in presidential voter turnout at 75.7% (2012).  In non-presidential or midterm elections the state still leads the nation but the turnout drops to 55% (2010).  Exit polls in presidential election years place the number of individuals who consider themselves to be DFLers at the 38-40% range, with the GOP coming in at 30-33%.  Independence Party members constitute about 10-12%, the Greens one percent, and about 20%  unaffiliated.  These are numbers than generally favor Democrats but in non-presidential election years much of the 20% drop in voter turnout comes from women, young voters, people of color, and the undecided.   Democrats nationally and in Minnesota face a problem motivating their base to vote in midterm elections, and they also struggle to capture the unaffiliated who often are  swing voters.  Midterm voters are older, whiter, and more conservative than presidential year voters.
    Second, the DFL will struggle with this electorate especially given the last important number–President Obama’s poor approval numbers.  The Minnesota poll has his approval at 43% and disapproval at 50%, and an April KSTP poll has a more questionable 36% approval and a 54% disapproval; both survey providing  numbers historically  associated with a bad showing for his party in November.
    Third, whatever chance the Republicans have in Minnesota they have to be considered in light of the prospects of their party capturing the US Senate or other governorships across the country.  There are other states where the GOP have better chances of picking up Democrat Senate seats, such as in Montana and South Dakota, and the Republicans have to defend more gubernatorial seats than their main rivals.  Unless the numbers change in Minnesota quickly, look to see more time, effort, and money spent by outside groups on other races besides those to unseat Dayton and Franken.

 Political Messaging and Narratives
    Besides the numbers, campaigns and elections are won and lost based on political messages or narratives.  This year the narratives will be simple–do you like Obama, Obamacare, and the direction of the country, and do you like what the DFL did under unified control the last two years?
    For good or bad, the DFL party in Minnesota delivered on their promises because they were in charge.  This is the result of unified government.  When all is told the Democrats largely did what they promise, for good or bad.  They raised the minimum wage, passed anti-bullying legislation, cut taxes, passed a massive bonding bill, and also did more.  The DFL acted like, well, Democrats are expected to act and they made no real missteps or mistakes in the process.  They did fail to address the constitutional problems with the civil commitment process for sexual offenders, but no one seriously thought they would do that in an election year.  They also failed miserably to pass new disclosure laws for campaigns and elections, and they did a lousy job on infrastructure funding.  But come November they will tell the voters that they did what the aimed to do, that it bettered Minnesota, and that because of that they deserve to retain single party control.
     But for all that they did, the Republicans will use it against them.  All of the accomplishments or victories that the DFL will triumph the Republicans will say is the reason why they should be elected.  They will argue that the DFL damaged the economy with a higher minimum wage, that the tax cuts are illusionary given the massive increases the year before, that  the Democrats overreached into social issues, and that the bonding bill was simply an example of wasteful pork to buy votes. They will also try to talk about the botched rollout of MNSURE and excess spending on a new Senate office building.  Republicans will say the DFL acted like Democrats–as tax and spend liberals–and that their party has a better or different vision on state government.  Republicans and Democrats will offer contrasting views on the role of the state in Minnesota, with both parties making the election a referendum on the DFL’s performance.   The burden will be on the GOP to convince Minnesotans that they have a better narrative.  It may be easier to do with a 2014 electorate than a 2012 one, but still they need to make the case for why Dayton, Franken, and the DFL House should be ousted.

    Whatever and whoever the GOP nominate this weekend look to see an August primary.  The  Republicans will be spending the summer fighting one another instead of quickly uniting against  Dayton, Franken, and the Democrats.  The Minnesota Republicans, like the national party, is torn in many factions, potentially challenging the chances of them taking advantage of low voter turnout and disaffection with Obama.   The Republicans have a chance to flip Minnesota but in comparative  perspective, they face an uphill battle to win the governorship, the senate, and take back the House.