AFTER FOUR long years as Chicken Little, can the GOP collect its wits, conclude that the sky actually hasn’t fallen on America, and remake itself as a modern party with renewed national appeal?
That’s one of most intriguing questions in today’s politics, so let’s look at some recent indicators.
Start with the positive. Congressional Republicans have taken a step back from budgetary brinksmanship, agreeing to higher taxes on upper earners and abandoning, at least for now, their attempts to use the debt-ceiling, and the threat of default, to demand their way on spending cuts.
What’s more, we’ve seen some flashes of the old, independent-minded John McCain. This week, the Arizona senator rebuked two of his GOP colleagues for questioning the integrity and patriotism of his former friend Chuck Hagel. Initially, McCain even seemed willing to set a principled example for his filibuster-fancying fellow senators, declaring that though he would vote against Hagel for secretary of defense, he wouldn’t be part of a filibuster to block the appointment. Alas, by Thursday, McCain had put that process high-mindedness behind him and joined a (successful) filibuster to delay Hagel’s confirmation vote.
Part of the party has also seemed willing to engage in some sorely needed introspection. And on the surface at least, sense has held its own with sensibility. Take, for example, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s counsel that “Republicans must stop being the stupid party.” Yes, Donald Trump rose to object (apparently on a point of personal privilege), but Jindal’s recommendation otherwise sparked some serious discussion.
Yet there will just as obviously be strong resistance to any attempt to change the party. Witness the furious reaction to Karl Rove’s latest project, a new super PAC that will try to keep fringe candidates at bay, or at least from becoming Republican senatorial nominees. Former party chairman Haley Barbour has weighed in on Rove’s side, but the Tea Partiers, the talk-radio set, and the Club for Growth are apoplectic. Rove’s effort has triggered an intra-party battle that will likely take at least an election cycle to resolve.
And now to the negative. The GOP’s response to the State of the Union was discouraging indeed for nonconservatives who nonetheless think the country can benefit from a reassertion of intellectually serious conservatism. Florida Senator Marco Rubio was supposed to be the GOP’s new, fresh, thoughtful face. But Rubio trafficked in the same dumbed-down anti-Obama arguments that conservative polemicists have spent years trying to peddle. His contention that President Obama believes that “our free enterprise economy . . . [is] the cause of our problems,” is just teeth-achingly stupid. When Rubio then proceeded to accuse Obama of “falsely attacking” the motives of his critics, his speech became positively self-parodic.
Then there was his refusal to acknowledge reality. Like, say, that the Great Recession and the Bush tax cuts have played a role in creating the deficit. Overall, what Rubio offered up was not new thinking or new ideas, but a glop of gallimaufry from the GOP’s 2012 primary campaign.
And yet, you can say this about him: He was better than Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who on Wednesday dismissed the president’s speech as “pedestrian liberal boilerplate.” McConnell has grown so accustomed to playing troll under the bridge that he apparently doesn’t realize how off-putting his snide and reflexive opposition has become.
Finally, there was the strange matter of National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent, who was last heard from making vaguely menacing noises about Obama, attending the speech as the guest of Texas Representative Stephen Stockman.
Now, it’s unfair to treat Stockman, a bizarre figure given to lunatic-fringe statements, as a typical Republican congressman. Still, one would have thought Speaker John Boehner might try to dissuade him from having Nugent, a louche loudmouth given to reactionary rants, as his invited guest. Did the speaker try to discourage it?
“I don’t believe they discussed the matter at all,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an e-mail.
So how to sum it all up? It’s fair to say some progress has been made. But it’s just as obvious that recentering the GOP will be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back exercise.