The biggest obstacle to Republican reform

April 26, 2013

For the second year running, House Republicans are trying to defund the American Community Survey, a supplemental census—of sorts—that provides valuable information on everything from family structure and income to educational attainment and relationship status. It’s an excellent resource for individuals, businesses, social scientists, and anyone interested in learning more about the composition of the country.

It’s hard to understand why Republicans want to end it—though it involves a combination of penny-pinching and scientific illiteracy—but they fact is that they do, and it’s a shame.

Every few weeks, Washington wonders if a given politician will “reform” the GOP and lead it out of the wilderness. And GOP governors are almost always the focus of that conversation, for obvious reasons. Unlike congressional Republicans, politicians like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey actually have to govern. They, and their counterparts in other states, have the skills necessary to craft a coherent conservative agenda.

But the ongoing push to eliminate the American Community Survey illustrates the big problem for would-be reformers and their supporters in Washington. Namely, at the end of the day, they’ll have to win support from a majority (or large plurality) of Republican voters—the kind of people who are incensed by government-sponsored surveys.

What’s more, not only are Republican voters still enthusiastic about the campaign of categorical obstruction from GOP politicians, but they remain supportive of the worst elements of the Republican Party—your Rush Limbaughs, Mark Levins, Sarah Palins, and Ted Cruz’s. And while most Americans are rightfully disdainful of President Bush and his tenure, most Republicans see the previous administration as nothing less than a success.

Now, is it possible for Walker, or Christie, or McDonnell—or anyone else—to buck the rhetoric and policies of the last four years and try to lead the GOP to a more productive place? Certainly. The question is whether it’s likely, and I have serious doubts. What incentive is there for change? You risk alienating Republican voters, and jeopardizing your position in the party, to say nothing of ending your shot at a presidential nomination.

With the Democratic Party in the 1980s, the problem was the leadership—they were out of alignment with a less liberal rank-and-file. By moving to the center, Democratic leaders were able to secure their voters and compete for the mainstream. The GOP has the opposite problem—its core supporters are far to the right, and can destroy the careers of anyone who takes a different approach.

That, for Republicans who want reform, is a much harder problem to solve.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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Jamelle Bouie | April 26, 2013