Frances Lee has written a great book that points out some interesting tidbits on the partisan gridlock consuming Washington today. Her primary argument is that many partisan issues arise not due to differences in ideology, but due to partisan turf wars, in a battle of strategy between Democrats and Republicans trying to ensure their hold on power. She explains that parties will make non-ideological votes into partisan issues (see the book for a full discussion what exactly this entails).
It is worthwhile to take a look at our national political scene through this paradigm. Too much of what we see in Washington is viewed as partisan warfare, each side involved in a death struggle to maintain power. As opposed to simply trying to figure out pragmatic solutions that will help us get our house in order: ensuring access to low-cost health care, education, and providing a good environment for private businesses to create meaningful jobs.
Ms. Lee also looks in her book at how Presidential leadership these days is often divisive, not unifying. In the past 30 years or so (perhaps starting with the presidency of Jimmy Carter? maybe…) Presidents have been lightning rods of partisan anger coming from the other party. This has become worse given the senseless partisan rancor coming from President Obama’s opponents. In fact it has become a strategy for the administration to keep quiet on issues and allow Congressional Democrats to push for compromise on policies that, were they heard by conservatives spoken from the mouth of the President would be immediately denounced and rejected.
In regards to health care, this is especially frustrating, as Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and Mitt Romney have at one time or another supported plans similar to Obamacare. But once the administration made health care an issue, angry conservative partisans dug in their heels on the issue, thus preventing them from achieving any sort of partisan compromise.
Which brings me full circle: it’s all about a policy turf war, as Ms. Lee so deftly argues in her book. Which party owns which issue? The Republicans really don’t have much going for them: gun control, abortion, smaller more efficient governance, fiscal responsibility (arguable because the Republicans remain diametrically opposed to raising any taxes to help reduce the deficit, but can’t come to agreement on the deep cuts that are necessitated by this fact). All of these issues win Republicans votes. But which issues can the Republicans come to the table on that will improve the party’s standing with people other than suburban whites? Any such issue will ensure the long-term viability of the Republican Party in a way that the current path of ideological purity cannot.
The thing is, Republicans used to be good at this game. Remember the heady days of Medicare part D? Remember the early days of the Bush presidency when it seemed like it was going to be possible to reform Social Security with private accounts? Instead of ideologically pure ideas, Republicans were interested in expanding their base, solidifying their hold on power, and then working on the real prize: reduction of the debt (although the Bush tax cuts made this a lot more difficult… and oddly enough those tax cuts were passed using reconciliation in the Congress, the same hotly debated method that Republicans cried about when it was used to pass Obamacare).
If this strategy is adopted, Republicans can have a seat at the negotiating table and very well could beat Democrats at their own game. As it is right now, Democrats are gloating over a perceived victory that very well could be turned into a plus for Republicans. Immigration is the way forward right now.
The other facet to this problem is the angry political base that Republicans now have to deal with. Dealing with this base is going to take a lot of soul-searching. But I would argue that it has already started with Boehner’s decision to put the radical wing of the party in the driver’s seat for the recent government shutdown. The amateurs were in control and they clearly showed themselves to be as much. In the process Boehner showed them how pathetic their “strategy” was, and solidified his hold on the Speakership. It’s now up to Republican leadership to bring this wing of the party into line.
Then there’s the whole Tea Party apparatus that continues to thrive, fueld by funds from Koch brother/Heritage action/FreedomWorks and anger at President Obama for silly reasons like what his wife wore to the 9/11 memorial or his “narcissism”.
This refocusing of the party’s grand strategy will allow for a more efficacious accomplishment of the party’s goals. A place at the table of bipartisanship will burnish our image abroad, restore Americans’ faith in our system of government, and allow the party in opposition to expand its base, take back the White House and ultimately get our fiscal house in order, shrink government, and increase liberty for all Americans. It’s the best way forward.