I'm not disposed to appreciate the term "the Republican brand." It comes off as an empty buzzword of the week. On the other hand, anything that pisses off Michelle Malkin can't be all bad. Absent another shorthand for "that set of ideals that the party uses to sell itself to voters," I'll use it for today.
That said, should the Republican brand change after this election? Can it?
Let me begin by saying that I am skeptical of pronouncements that any election represents a fundamental shift in American politics. The Rovian predictions of a permanent Republican majority faded fast. So did the "Third Way" elation following Bill Clinton's 1992 election — that didn't last past the mid-terms. And the rise of the Moral Majority that helped propel Reagan into office didn't last to prevent the election of Clinton or Obama. Whatever Obama's election foretells, it does not change the fact that for 20 of the 28 years we have had Republican presidents.
There are some hints of gradual change in the 2008 election, perhaps. America's changing demographic makeup made a difference, signaling that future candidates need to consider that the white majority will be a minority later this century. Witness, for example, the impact of the Latino vote, which made up about 8% of votes cast — 66% went to Obama, compared to (for instance) 21% for Dole in 1996. On the other hand, there are hints that no party can take any demographic group for granted. Witness, for example, the strong African-American support for Proposition 8 in California.
Anyway, possibly because the media loves sea-change stories, and commentators love to feel useful and knowledgeable, there is a flood of stories this week about how the Republican party needs to change its brand. Some libertarian-wing Republicans dream of ditching the cultural conservative component of the brand. Some, taking comfort from the victory of anti-gay measures nationwide, think that cultural conservatism should be the heart of the brand. And plenty of conservatives believe that the party needs to return convincingly to small-government fiscal responsibility.
The question: should the Republican party move forward with a combined message of cultural conservatism, fiscal responsibility, and strong defense? Or does that still work?
I'm obviously biased. I'd love to see a more libertarian Republican party — one that heeded Goldwater's warnings, disentangled itself from religion, and recognized that the government's role is not to enforce cultural and social norms unrelated to core government functions. I'm in favor of strong national defense as well. More specifically, I'm in favor of a national defense that hews to appropriate limits on government, separation of powers, and constitutional rights, and doesn't use national defense (like the government has used the War on Drugs) as a bank check to grow federal power and ignore the rule of law. In other words, I'd like to see a retreat from the Bush Administration's statist approach to government.
But can a Republican party so focused survive? Once again, I'm skeptical. "Small government" and "personal responsibility" sound good, but how many Americans actually support them when they are uncoupled from family-centered cultural dog whistles? I think most Americans like these concepts in the abstract, but falter when they are applied to specific circumstances. The overwhelming support for Social Security and Medicare, and the extreme danger of suggesting changes to those programs, is a good example. People like other people to take personal responsibility, and like those components of the government that help other people to get smaller. The values that inform libertarianism are too abstract and not as susceptible to chanted slogans and easy crowd-pleasing themes; they are difficult to shape into the heart of an effective modern campaign.
So as much as I'd like to see a libertarian Republican party, I don't think it will happen any time soon. If there's a war for the direction of the party, and the libertarian approach wins, I think you'd see a large splinter group of cultural conservatives break off — which would enable a Democratic romp. Nobody sensible wants that. (The Democrats shouldn't either. They'd hurt themselves.) So for now, I think you'll continue to see the uneasy combination of cultural conservatives and economic conservatives, neither side getting everything it wants, driving the party. Which side will get the emphasis in 2012? Well, if I were forced to guess, I'd say the cultural conservatives. The only people who are exciting to any significant component of the Republican base right now are Sarah Palin (God help us all) and Bobby Jindal and (to a lesser extent) Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. Of those, Huckabee is the only one I can stand.
What kind of sea change would it take to get a genuinely libertarian Republican party?
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