Back to School for The GOP
In the past few years, Democrats have gotten pretty good at mimicking Republicans. They've been training college activists, establishing think tanks and, more generally, trying to turn their party into a movement -- just what conservatives did during their years in the pre-Reagan wilderness. As John Podesta, head of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, told the New York Times Magazine a while back, "I describe myself as having a master's degree in the right-wing conspiracy."
Imitation may be flattering, but in this case, it comes with a large scoop of irony. Because while Democrats are enrolling in GOP 101, the GOP itself is in free fall. According to a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, only 28 percent of Americans view the party positively. Asked which party they'd like to take the White House in 2008, respondents favored the Democrats by almost 20 points. To recover, Republicans will have to do something they haven't done in decades: learn from the other guys.
Democrats 101 starts with a little history. In the 1980s, it was Democrats who were politically radioactive. They were hemorrhaging swing voters, especially independents and the young. And on such issues as welfare and crime, the party's activist base imposed litmus tests that rendered Democratic presidential candidates unelectable in most places south and west of Harvard Square.
Today, by contrast, it is the GOP that can't buy a swing voter. Last fall, Republicans lost independents by 18 percentage points, young voters by 22 points and Hispanics by 40 points. And on today's hot issues -- Iraq, stem cells, global warming, health care -- it is conservative activists who are badly out of touch.
In the states, shrewd Republican officeholders are getting the message and adjusting course. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger has put universal health care, a cap on greenhouse gases and a stem cell partnership with Canada at the top of his second-term agenda. In Florida, newly elected Gov. Charlie Crist is following suit -- and reaping approval ratings north of 70 percent. But nationally, the GOP is hostage to a hard-core base that considers those positions a betrayal. To have a shot at their party's presidential nomination, Mitt Romney has had to adopt the Christian right's wildly unpopular line on stem cells, Rudy Giuliani has journeyed to Virginia Beach to kiss Pat Robertson's ring, and John McCain has endorsed a South Dakota abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest.
That's the problem with a party becoming a movement. For decades, Republicans have built institutions that empower conservative activists and marginalize everybody else. Think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation dream up innovative new ways to repeal the welfare state, even though most Americans want it extended. Pressure groups such as the Family Research Council fight evolution. And to escape their wrath, Republican presidential candidates take positions that alienate even the moderates in their own party, to say nothing of the swing voters outside.
In the 1980s, Democrats solved this problem with a three-letter abbreviation: DLC. Today, the Democratic Leadership Council is under attack from liberal activists. But two decades ago, it saved the party from many of the problems now afflicting the GOP. Founded after Walter Mondale's blowout loss in 1984, the DLC worked to free Democratic politicians from candidate-killing litmus tests. It supported early primaries in the South and called for letting independents take part, so the people choosing Democratic presidential nominees would have more in common with the people choosing the president. It championed more police on the street, which made Democrats look tough on crime, and an increased tax exemption for children, which made them look pro-family. And while the DLC's first contender, a hawkish young Tennessee senator named Al Gore, flamed out in 1988, it struck gold in 1992 with Bill Clinton. Thanks in large part to the DLC, Clinton won the Democratic nomination despite supporting welfare reform and capital punishment, heresies that helped make him electable come fall.
Republicans should be taking notes. There is a Republican Leadership Council, but like other moderate Republican groups, it lacks intellectual heft and political muscle. Today's GOP needs an organization strong enough to fight the hegemony of the Iowa caucuses, where hard-right activists dominate and centrist candidates go to die. It needs think tanks that offer serious answers on global warming and universal health care, where conservative orthodoxy is increasingly detached from political reality. And it needs to open up more primary voting to independents, the people who powered John McCain's crusade against the party base in 2000.
It may be too late for 2008; the front-runners may already have pandered themselves into a corner. But the more elections the GOP loses, the better chance a souped-up RLC will have. If Republicans aren't desperate enough to start learning from Democrats yet, they'll be sharpening their pencils come 2012.
Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a monthly column for The Post.