Friday, March 26, 2010

Has the Republican Party lost its soul?

I don't think even I fully appreciated just how serious the Republican Party's situation is in the wake of their legislative defeat this week.

As Think Progress reports, David Frum has been "unceremoniously forced out" of the American Enterprise Institute, "a right wing, neoconservative think tank," four days after he criticized he way Republicans fought against health care reform.  Frum wrote on his website that the passage of health care reform on Sunday was a disaster for which Republicans were partially responsible. Frum wrote:
At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994. [...] This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.
Matthew Yglesias points out that Frum's dismissal for his criticism seems disproportionate:
The most surprising thing about David Frum’s apparent parting of ways with the American Enterprise Institute is the extremely mild nature of Frum’s heterodoxy. What he’s been doing for the past week has been to primarily offer a tactical critique of congressional Republicans’ approach to health reform. And if you can’t offer a tactical critique in the wake of an unequivocal defeat then what can you do? I don’t really expect people to welcome sharp disagreement about matters of principle, but when you adopt an approach to blocking a piece of legislation, and then the legislation doesn’t get blocked how are you not going to engage in some spirited disagreement about what went wrong? It’s baffling.
Many conservatives are talking about Frum's dismissal.  Some sound disappointed; others apocalyptic. According to Julian Sanchez,
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.
Bruce Bartlett referred to Frum's dismissal as "the closing of the conservative mind."  On C-SPAN this morning, Bartlett said:
[W]hat’s really going on here is that adherence to conservative principles has been—is out the window now. All that matters now is absolute subservient adherence to the Republican Party line of the day. And that’s what got David into trouble. He was critical, not even of Republican principles, but of Republican tactics on the health care debate. And now, even that is considered, you know, you can’t say that or you lose your job.
The dismissal has led Andrew Sullivan to write:
[H]ere's where David and I agree: we both grew up when conservatism was intellectually sharp and interesting. Its current brutal anti-intellectualism, its open hostility to moderation in any form; its substitution of purer and purer ideology for actual, pragmatic ideas: these are trends that have left a lot of us on the center right marooned. I think David may well be glad he is now formally ostracized. It will liberate him and his formidable mind. Serious thinking conservatives know that these are times for real re-thinking, not more positioning.
While some conservatives appear to be rethinking their approach, others are not.  The same tactics Russell King railed against earlier this week in a damning catalog of conservative transgressions continue unabated.  Rep. Devin Nunes, the man who claimed that "Democratic congressmen from California are 'part of this totalitarian regime in Washington,'" is now comparing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe.  Hogan at RedState writes that Republicans must campaign for repeal of health care reform, and praises Rep. Mike Pence for saying, “The American people don’t want a government takeover of health care and House Republicans will work every day to repeal this law and start over," in spite of the fact that health care reform is provably not a government takeover of health care.  Rep. Kevin Brady has fueled false rumors, now promulgated by conservative media, that "The IRS will be tracking you down if you don’t purchase health insurance."  Two days ago, Rep. Michelle Bachmann boasted that her suspicions over a year ago that Barack Obama harbored anti-American views make her look like Nostradamus now.  And there's what Think Progress calls Sarah Palin's "reload" map

For over a year, all the Republican Party had to offer was delay, obstruction, and misinformation.  They could have worked with Democrats to put their own free market, small government stamps on the bill, but they refused.  Even though Republican ideas were integrated into the legislation, Republicans cannot even take credit for their inclusion since they refused to participate.  They could have accepted the fact that they had lost the election in 2008 and now had to deal with a Democratic House, Senate, and President, but they refused.  The best explanation is perhaps the most obvious: in the war of ideas, they have raised the white flag.

Republicans made more than a mere tactical miscalculation.  According to Patrick Ruffini, while Republicans do have guiding principles, they simply didn't bother to work out how to apply them to the health care debate.  And that is evidence of a lack of ideas:  
When it comes to health care policy, conservatives have been seriously outgunned. [. . .] On economics, you always know what the conservative answer is: tax cuts and generally hands-off regulatory policies to spur economic growth. No matter how good the Democrats' promises sound, we return to these simple, pro-growth touchstones that resonate with a majority of Americans who intuitively get that you can't micromanage your way to a better future.

On health care, I have no idea what our basic guiding principle is. Seriously, I don't.

We have tried ineffectively to stretch free market rhetoric to health care without appreciating that health care is already too far removed from a free market for the analogy to make sense. Real markets are sensitive to price. Health care isn't. The insurance companies hide the cost of actual care from the consumer. 
What we have lacked in this debate is a simple clarion call to address an aching need -- bringing free market principles to bear to improve tangible health outcomes.

Instead, we have allowed the left to define the problem as exclusively one of access -- of the nearly 50 million without insurance dying in the streets (of course, we don't talk about that number anymore because nearly a third of that number are illegal immigrants, an issue Obamacare studiously avoids).

And it's no surprise. The left has had a far greater number of health care analysts devising grand plans for the eventual takeover. And they have invested more political capital in this issue than any other. It should surprise no one that the conservative effort in this space has been paltry in comparison. We just haven't had as many people thinking about health care, and we didn't actively move legislation on it when we were in power.
The impression I have of the Republican approach to health care was summed up by Rep. Alan Grayson last year: Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.  And that's not my fault.

Which brings me to Nate Silver.  Late in 2008, the man behind FiveThirtyEight asked, "Did Talk Radio Kill Conservatism?"  He had interviewed radio host John Ziegler about a poll Ziegler had commissioned.  At one point, Ziegler expressed astonishment that Silver didn't accept the claim that Obama's political career was launched at the home of Bill Ayers.  According to Silver, that was
the key passage of my interview with John Ziegler on Tuesday, for it is, in a nutshell, why conservatives don't win elections anymore. It is not that conservatism generally permits less nuance than liberalism (in terms of political messaging, that is probably one of conservatism's strengths). Rather, [. . .] [t]here are a certain segment of conservatives who literally cannot believe that anybody would see the world differently than the way they do. They have not just forgotten how to persuade; they have forgotten about the necessity of persuasion.

John Ziegler is a shining example of such a conservative. During my interview with him, Ziegler made absolutely no effort to persuade me about the veracity of any of his viewpoints. He simply asserted them -- and then became frustrated, paranoid, or vulgar when I rebutted them.
During the health care debate, Republicans made little to no effort to discuss the actual merits of Democratic ideas for health care reform.  Their objections were either rigidly ideological with no appreciation of the practical consequences of that ideology, or based on misinformation or lies.  That is, Republicans made no real attempt to rationally win the debate.  They surrendered the moment it started, and opted instead to use non-rational means of persuasion, such as propaganda and fear.  They no longer have any interest Frum's quaint world of principles and ideas.  And for that, they are paying dearly.

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson