President Obama’s news conference Wednesday night was a bit of a masterpiece. The Obama Thinking Look was back, as he parsed questions, took notes, and offered up rehearsed answers in a way that made them seem not written by the Committee on Soundbites but natural to him, as if he were formulating answers in the here and now. On torture, he cited Churchill. He spoke of pro-lifers not with any of the appellations the left prefers but as pro-lifers. He dispatched the culturally radical Freedom of Choice Act as “not a top priority”; he said he doesn’t want to run auto companies and banks and would prefer, in fact, a smaller portfolio. His presentation was low-key, authoritative, and had the look and feel of moderation. When you can give this impression while some of your decisions—for instance, on the legitimate cost and reach of government—are not, actually, moderate, you are demonstrating a singular political talent.
He is subtle and likes to kill softly. As such, he is something new on the political scene, which means he will require something new from his opponents, including, first, patience.
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I am wondering once again if Republicans in Washington fully understand what they are up against.
They have had a hard week. Someday years hence, when books are written about the Republican comeback, they may well begin with this low moment, and the bolting of Arlen Specter to the Democrats. It is fine to dismiss Mr. Specter as an opportunist, but opportunists tell you something: which side is winning. That’s the side they want to be on.
And so the latest round of What Should the Republican Party Do?
If it is alive, and it is, it will evolve, as living things do. Beyond that, a thought.
A great party needs give. It must be expansive and summoning. It needs to say, “Join me.”
A party that is huge, vital and national, that is truly the expression of the views of a huge and varied nation, will, by definition, contain within it those who are more to the right, and more to the left, and more to the middle. This creates a constant tension, a constant fight, but no matter. As Ronald Reagan said in China, in front of students at Fudan University, we are “a great disputatious nation.”
Great parties are coalitions, and coalitions contain disparate and sometimes warring pieces. FDR’s coalition contained Southern Democrats from Birmingham and socialists from the Bronx. They didn’t agree on much, but they agreed on some essentials, such as “the New Deal is good” and “government should be harnessed to help the little guy.” It was imperfect and in time evolved but its success demonstrated that a great party needs give.
The argument over the Republican party now always devolves into the question: Should it be less conservative? I say devolves because it is Democrats and the left who frame the question that way, and they do so because whatever the answer, yes or no, it will damage Republicans.
Another way to put the question is: Can the party, having accurately ascertained its position, and recognizing shifting terrain, institute a renewed and highly practical tolerance for the many flavors of Republican? Can it live happily and productively with all its natural if sometimes warring constituent groups?
All the metaphors here are tired, so let’s stick with the big tent. A big tent is held up by tent poles. No poles, no tent. No poles, all you have is a big collapsed canvas.
The poles that keep up the tent are the party’s essential beliefs. Republicans over the next few years should define what each of their tent poles stands for—a strong defense being an obvious pole, a less demanding and intrusive government being another, a natural affection and respect for tradition and for life being a third—and how many poles there are.
But also, the people inside can’t always be kicking people out of the tent. A great party cannot live by constantly subtracting, by removing or shunning those who are not faithful to every aspect of its beliefs, or who don’t accept every pole, or who are just barely fitting under the tent. Room should be made for them. Especially in those cases when Republican incumbents and candidates are attempting to succeed in increasingly liberal states, a certain practical sympathy is in order.
In the party now there is too much ferocity, and bloody-mindedness. The other day Sen. Jim DeMint said he’s rather have 30 good and reliable conservative senators than 60 unreliable Republicans. Really? Good luck stopping an agenda you call socialist with 30 hardy votes. “Shrink to win”: I’ve never heard of that as a political slogan.
Is it fully mature, and truly protective toward America, to be so politically exclusionary?
It is true that Republican unity would benefit now, or soon, from a great man or woman who can by the force of his presence, by the provable support of the people of his home state, by his ability to persuade, by his ability to seem somehow inevitable (as FDR and Churchill, Thatcher and Reagan all did), emerge and win the support of a plurality of the American people.
That is a wonderful and exciting thing when it happens.
But such a person may or may not emerge. People who resolve history just by showing up are few and far between.
We say of a great one, “That’s the sort of person who comes along once a generation,” but in fact when you look back on history you realize it’s a lucky nation that yields one up even that often. A lot of history is just making do, muddling through. A lot of history goes unmarked by conspicuous greatness.
Right now, Republicans have to muddle through and do their best. They are up against a talented and charismatic leader whom people want to succeed. His party is with him. Certainly it is hungry, and grateful to him for getting them back in the game.
Republicans are also up against themselves. On Capitol Hill they are up against the Bush era, when through fear of the White House or mindless opportunism they supported things they now decry. It will take them a while to seem credible again. The smarter of them know this. They’re waiting for time to pass and a new cliché about them to take hold. Old cliché: “They’re not a credible alternative.” Future cliché they hope for: “They’ve learned a lot in the wilderness.”
Republicans are trying to find themselves during a time of dramatic, rolling change, demographic change, younger voters who seem embarrassed to be associated with them, an aging and contracting base and, perhaps most ominously, what appears to be a new national openness to a redefinition of the relationship between the government and the governed.
The ground is shifting. It’s hard to get your footing in an earthquake. As Republicans on the Hill try, they must also try to steady their party. It needs a greater sense of realism about its predicament. It needs less enforcement and more encouragement. It needs to inspire the young and the politically unformed not with bloodlust but with ideas.
A great party allows everyone in, and allows prospective members to self-define. If they say they’re Republicans, they should be welcomed and helped to find a place where they fit. A great party has a lot of such places. A great party is expansive. A great party has give.