David Frum writing in Foreign Affairs about the need for the GOP to modernise. He begins “For the six years since President George W. Bush left office, his party has turned its back on him. Bush spoke at neither the 2008 nor the 2012 Republican National Convention. When aspiring successors to his former office mentioned him at all during the primary debates, they cited his legacy as something to avoid repeating. Yet Bush may prove much harder to ignore at the party’s next convention: one of the most mentioned possibilities for the 2016 Republican presidential nominee is the ex-president’s brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush”.
Thankfully Frum posits the theory that “reports of the demise of the Republican establishment have been greatly exaggerated. The outlandish characters who ran for Senate in 2010 and president in 2012 have mostly faded from the scene. The large donors who supported George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney continue to hold sway within their party”.
Indeed there have been signs of this. Speaker Boehner did try to attack the Tea Party but whatever he did do was not nearly enough. The faction within the GOP still crow about shutting down the Federal Government while others seem totally detached from reality and seem to think less government will mean more “freedom” for everyone when in fact it would only mean more “freedom” or power and influence for the richest. Indeed the establishment has begun to see the light but it has only half the case. It still needs to destroy the tea party and then it will become a viable force in American politics again. If it continues with the first of these but not the second, it will die, as many have predicted.
Frum argues that three issues have led to the defeats of the GOP in the past decade, “First, Republicans have come to rely more and more on the votes of the elderly, the most government-dependent segment of the population — a serious complication for a party committed to reducing government. Second, the Republican donor class has grown more ideologically extreme, encouraging congressional Republicans to embrace ever more radical tactics. Third, the party’s internal processes have rigidified, in ways that dangerously inhibit its ability to adapt to changing circumstances”.
Frum takes the first of these, the elderly, “Throughout most of their lives, members of the postwar baby-boom generation (now in their 50s and 60s) held views considerably more liberal than those of the generation before them (now in their 70s and 80s). As late as the year 2000, only 35 percent of baby boomers described themselves as ‘conservative.’ Then came the financial crisis and the presidency of Barack Obama. The proportion of baby boomers who called themselves ‘angry at government’ surged from 15 percent before 2008 to 26 percent after the financial crisis struck. By 2011, 42 percent of baby boomers were labeling themselves ‘conservative.’ The politics of the soft-rock audience had converged with those of Bill O’Reilly viewers (median age: 72). It’s important to understand what right-leaning baby boomers mean by the word ‘conservative.’ On social issues such as gay rights and the role of women, boomers, like all Americans, continue to evolve in liberal directions. Nor have boomers become enthralled by the laissez-faire agenda of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. On the contrary, people who are in their 60s today express much more suspicion of business than this same demographic cohort did in the 1990s, when they were younger and otherwise more liberal. Finally, despite the libertarian language of the Tea Party, boomer conservatives are not demanding to be ‘left alone.’ In fact, 64 percent of boomers say they worry that the government doesn’t do enough to help older people, a much higher proportion than in any other age group — higher, even, than among people in their 70s and 80s”.
It is of course ironic that what Frum labels as conservative is as a result of not enough government intervention. If “the market” had been better regulated those who would have been unable to afford home loans would not have been given them. However, greed and the unrelenting desire for profit, irrespective of the social cost was the only mantra. The consequences of this have been plain to see. The only solution is intense government regulation and oversight on a system that otherwise could not be trusted by itself. Therefore it is not surprising to see that as Frum notes that “they worry that the government doesn’t do enough to help older people”.
Indeed he qualifies this boomer conservativism when he writes “What boomers mean when they call themselves conservative is that they have begun to demand massive cutbacks to spending programs that do not directly benefit them. Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. Not surprisingly, then, boomers say they want no change at all to the Medicare and Social Security benefits they have begun to qualify for. They will even countenance tax increases on high earners to maintain those benefits”.
This, far from being a legitimate concern is merely selfishness and should be dismissed. In the specific instance of those not having enough for their retirement if Americans, especially the richest Americans were taxed more, and they worked longer this would not be an issue.
Frum writes that “Republicans have responded to boomers’ fears by reinventing themselves as defenders of the fiscal status quo for older Americans — and only older Americans. In 2005, Bush proposed bold reforms to Social Security, including privatization. But since 2008, the GOP has rejected changes to retirement programs that might in any way impinge on current beneficiaries. The various budget plans Republicans produced in the run-up to the 2012 election all exempted Americans over age 55 from any changes to either Social Security or Medicare”.
He goes on to contradict himself, “People who feel squeezed economically can easily feel that they face a cultural onslaught, too. The baby-boom generation is about 80 percent white. Of the Americans who lacked health insurance prior to the 2008 financial crisis, 27 percent were foreign-born. It’s not surprising that many boomers perceived Obamacare as a transfer of health-care resources from ‘us’ to ‘them,’ in every sense of the word ‘them.’ And when the president who champions this transfer is himself the black son of a foreign father, it’s even less surprising that economically anxious people might identify that president as the embodiment of a direct threat to their expected place in the scheme of things”.
Frum cannot have it both ways. He says that those baby boomers are both increasingly tolerant of gay marriage but at the same time he then says that they are “squeezed economically” which is true but only of small number and at the same time the age group as a whole has been least affected by the economic collapse. The only point that Frum claims is that they are confused and lash out while at the same time supporting policies that will benefit them.
He makes the valid point that “This generational tension thrusts the Republican Party into an awkward spot. The elderly and disabled consume 41 percent of all federal spending. Any project to reduce federal spending while exempting such a huge budget category would require either drastic additional defence cuts or a desperate political struggle to concentrate all cuts on the comparatively meager federal programs for working-aged Americans and the young. The former necessity explains why the once internationalist Republican Party so willingly accepted the defence sequester of 2011. The latter explains why budgetary politics in the Obama years has grown so polarised: the GOP’s largest voting constituency has convinced itself that it cannot afford any compromise at all”.
He goes on to discuss the wealthy rich that are tilting the GOP, and America, into the abyss, “In 2010, the financier Stephen Schwarzman equated Obama’s attempt to raise taxes on hedge funds with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and in March 2014, Kenneth Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot, warned that liberal arguments about income inequality reminded him of Nazi pro-p-aganda. Although Schwarzman and Langone later apologised for their choices of words, the hyperbole revealed how threatened the nation’s richest citizens feel by the political tendencies of postcrisis America. As the party of opposition to Obama, the GOP has benefited from the resulting surge of funds from the frightened wealthy — but that support has come at a heavy price”.
Fairly he writes that “through the long recovery that began in 2009, Republicans offered an economic message of fiscal and monetary austerity. Their donors feared that low interest rates and quantitative easing would generate inflation, so Republicans opposed those policies. Their donors feared that today’s big deficits would be repaid out of future higher taxes, so Republicans had to oppose stimulus spending on roads, bridges, and airports”.
The stimulus, has not been perfect but it has worked overall. The narrowness of the GOP donor base has meant that they are appealing to a smaller and smaller group of the very wealthiest Americans. This is bad for democracy and America. There needs to be a rational coherent opposition that is willing to accept some basic facts about life. The GOP are unable to do this and thus are less and less credible as an opposition force.
The result of serving only their interests is that “As a Democrat presided over the slow recovery from a catastrophic slump, Republicans proved unable to capitalise on his struggles and find common cause with the jobless. During the 2012 election, Romney’s ’47 percent’ gaffe — his private comment that almost half the country had sunk into hopeless dependency on the government — proved so damaging because it was no gaffe at all. Wealthy Republicans had been talking that way all through the Obama years. The dependency idea formed the central theme of a speech that Representative Paul Ryan gave a year before he became Romney’s running mate”.
The dangerous thing, Frum points out is that “So radical was the Romney-Ryan budget plan that when a Democratic super PAC told a focus group what it entailed, The New York Times reported, ‘The respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.’ But ordinary rules about what politicians will or will not do have ceased to hold since 2008. The radicalisation of the party’s donor base has led Republicans in Congress to try tactics they would never have dared use before. During the debt-ceiling debates of 2011 and then again in 2013, Republicans in the House of Representatives came within days of causing the U.S. government to default on its financial obligations. In the 2011 crisis, they succeeded in forcing major budget cuts. The result was the sequester, the supposedly temporary deal that will, if sustained, cut the U.S. military’s fighting forces in half by 2021″.
He notes that “If the voters refused your offer of ham and eggs, it was because they wanted double ham and double eggs. And so a defeated party often directs at least as much of its ire toward its previous leader as it does toward its enemy in the White House. The GOP today is conforming to this familiar pattern, blaming Bush and Romney for straying from conservative dogma instead of grappling with the dogma itself”.
Frum continues that “Bush’s deviations from conservative orthodoxy do explain why the party has veered rightward since 2008. But condemning deviations has also provided a welcome escape from uncomfortable questions about whether party orthodoxy still produces positive results under contemporary circumstances. After all, when it came to economic management, Bush governed very much in the manner of President Ronald Reagan, although he failed to achieve Reagan’s outcomes. Bush cut income taxes — but instead of a 1980s-style boom, he got stagnating wages followed by a severe global recession. Like Reagan, Bush relaxed regulation of business, especially energy and finance. Instead of a surge in productivity, however, he presided over a housing bubble and a spike in gasoline prices”.
He makes the excellent point that “American conservatism in the twenty-first century remains defined by the concerns, issues, and even personalities of the twentieth. When the Republican Party turned its back on what Bush called “compassionate conservatism,” it chose to return to a bygone approach. Today’s GOP thinks it is making progress even as it retraces its steps. Yet there is a limit to how long this backward motion can continue. Party dogma meets electoral reality every two years, and for Republicans, that reality is looking increasingly inhospitable. From 1968 to 1988, Republicans won five of the six presidential elections (two by landslides) and averaged 52 percent of the popular vote. In the six presidential elections since then, however, they have won just twice and averaged just 45 percent of the popular vote. Something is obviously going badly wrong, and has been going wrong for a long time”.
He describes how the GOP is making its own situation worse for itself, “On the economic questions that matter most to them, Hispanics are highly liberal. That same 2007 Pew survey found that 69 percent of those polled wanted the government to guarantee health insurance for all, and 64 percent preferred more government services even at the cost of higher taxes. The reason is straightforward: the Hispanic population is disproportionately dependent on public assistance (22 percent have received food stamps, for example, as compared with 15 percent of non-Hispanic whites). Poor people are entitled to vote their pocketbooks just as rich people are, and it’s not surprising that people who need government help would pull the Democratic lever more reliably than the Republican one”.
Pointedly he writes that “It wasn’t their personalities that kept McCain and Romney from winning the vote of the female partner in an accounting firm, the Indian American hotel owner, the Japanese American architect, or the gay retired military officer. McCain and Romney were fine candidates. The problem was that they were forced to contort themselves and embrace messages that must-win constituencies found deeply obnoxious. The GOP’s political prospects will brighten only when it finds a more appealing what”.
In a nuanced argument Frum says the the key to GOP success is the “core message of limited government and low taxes with an equal commitment to be culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible. In the United States, with all its global responsibilities, there is an additional necessary component: a commitment to U.S. primacy that is unapologetic yet not bellicose. The passage of time will help Republicans get from here to there, bringing new generations to the stage and removing others with outdated ideas. Repeated defeat administers its own harsh lessons. But most of all, new circumstances will pose new challenges — and open up new possibilities”.
He ends “Conservatives may not be optimistic by nature. But even they should at least appreciate that Americans have never had so much worth conserving. The angry, insurrectionary mood of the past half-dozen years is as unjustified as it is dangerous to the stability of American government. For every action, whether in physics or in politics, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The liberal surge of the Obama years invites a conservative response, and a multiethnic, socially tolerant conservatism is waiting to take form”.