A Tale of Two Parties – The Fractious GOP

Thanks to the new material that will be part of the Radio Free New England podcast, my weekly commentaries are moving off air. Today’s commentary will be the last you hear, but I invite you to visit radiofreenewengland.com on Wednesdays where you’ll find a written commentary every week, under the Commentaries page. As always, I look forward to hearing what you think and you can join the discussion in the comments section of the page.

If you had to guess which party was meeting with minorities, women’s groups, immigrants and activists a week after the election, which would you pick? Well, this year it’s the Republicans, searching for answers to their presidential and Senate losses. Already, the commentators have begun laying blame and offering solutions.

An illustrative example of what the future holds for the GOP unfolded on the pages of the Washington Post. In competing columns, Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson argued two polar-opposite theses.

Krauthammer contends that the Republican Party is doing just fine and needs one simple tweak: immigration reform. Krauthammer (in hindsight, anyway) argues that Hispanics are natural Republicans and that all that is preventing them from voting for the Grand Old Party is hostility over Republican proposals for voluntary deportations and insensitivity to illegal immigrants already living in the United States.

Gerson, on the other hand, sees a wholesale problem. He writes that Romney lost because his campaign was essentially a technical manual for economic reform rather than a full-throated enunciation of conservative principles. Gerson also discussed the Latino vote, but he wrote about economic opportunity and social mobility instead of merely immigration. He harkened back to English conservative Edmund Burke, who believed in society rather than simply government or markets. Burke, an 18th century Whig, saw people as a tapestry of their time, place, and position. Everyone was molded by the traditions that surrounded them, living conditions, and status. Because Burke had a three dimensional view of people and life, he was not afraid to embrace sensible change. He was the type of person who stood on principle but compromised on the rest.

Gerson and Burke believe we’re not simple machines that react to one stimulus or input. In fact, Burke, if alive today, would be amazed to know that our machines don’t even act that way anymore. So, there’s the divide: Krauthammer’s analysis would fix a single issue, believing that will open up a pathway to Latino votes. Gerson would look at the economic and social needs of Latinos in addition to immigration. Further, Gerson would amend the Republican message to tell a story about conservatism in America.

It will be interesting to see which point of view wins amongst the party elite. We can be sure of three things as we move forward, however.

First, Michael Gerson won’t be the only one to discuss Edmund Burke. Burke is such an effective advocate for moderation and traditional conservatism that many centrists and even some liberals gush over him. We should surrender now and give him his own hashtag. See you at #Burke.

Secondly, I’m shocked at how familiar this all sounds. Some commentators and party leaders say the message is right and all that is needed is a little tweak to “win back” a natural constituency, while others say the party needs a broad change, to be more responsive and to develop a different narrative. Why, that’s exactly what the Democrats were saying in 2010 – same fight, different issues and different voters. The Democrats were looking to win back blue collar whites and some people said it came down to moderating stances on issues, while others said the Dems just needed a better story and to bring back the Old Time Religion.

Third, this has been happening for generations. 2008 saw the rise of the Tea Party who claimed the GOP had abandoned small government values. In 2004, liberals wanted to make Deaniacs out of the Democrats while centrists sought a revamped Clintonism. Each side blamed the other for John Kerry’s personal loss.

The fact is, there is hardly an election that goes by anymore where the losing side shakes the winner’s hand and says “good game” and gets on with trying to come together and govern. But we cannot forget, as citizens and as voters, that we sent them to the State House to govern, not to posture. The Democrats did it in 2010, and the Republicans are doing it now – the same public angst over the direction of the party and an all-too-transparent self-assessment. We should not be fooled. We should look to the record, to the deeds done, and decide for ourselves whether the Republicans are truly the party of Burke, or the party of posture. This session’s debt debate will be a good way to find out.