February 22, 2013

The opposite of irrational exuberance is going on today in the Republican Party. Let’s call it irrational panic. The party is taking it from all sides: Its campaigns are run by Luddites; its policies belong in the 20th century; the demographics of the GOP now translate as “grumpy old people.”

Now we can add Michael Gerson to the list of Republican Cassandras. He argues this morning that Republicans are finished at the national level unless they overhaul their message. I think Mr. Gerson is correct but perhaps did not go quite far enough.

There have been two political realignments in my lifetime but with some important distinctions. The Reagan and Clinton eras came about because a governing philosophy — the New Deal and then Reaganomics — was spent and a charismatic leader came along with a plan. But there was an important difference between these two political shifts.  Reagan’s was more lasting because its leader had a coherent and consistent philosophy.  Clinton’s was more temporal because it was more tactical and poll-driven in nature.

This is one way to look at the Republican’s Party’s future: Do they need a Clinton, someone who will, as Gerson suggests, steer the party toward some new ideas and a “third way” approach between the orthodoxies of the two parties? Or do they need a Reagan, someone who more completely and coherently redefines what it means to be a Republican. My guess is, given their current status, Republicans would welcome either alternative.