As the GOP faces day two of 40 years in the desert, the stories about what they should do are coming fast and furious, both nationally and locally.
The Columbian quotes Clark County Republican chair Ryan Hart thusly:
“I think that this is still a center-right country,” Hart said. “We have a message that reflects the majority of the electorate. … We just need to find candidates that can clearly articulate that message.”
To be clear, I’m not trying to mess with Hart, who has conducted himself as the Republican chair here with aplomb and decency. And what he’s saying is pretty common.
In fact, Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, said pretty much the same thing in a Politico piece this morning that is chock full of ruminations about the future of the Republican Party. More interesting are comments from a couple of Republican governors on page two of the same Politico article.
We have to have actual ideas,” said the 47-year-old Pawlenty. “The Republican idea factory has dried up. And we’ve got to catch up on the key issues of our times — health care, renewable energy and education.”
“We need real solutions,” adds Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, 37. “It’s not enough to be just against single-payer health care, for example. We’ve got to discuss how we promote private coverage, to apply our principles to the issues that affect people’s lives.”
I welcome Gov. Jindal’s explanations on how private insurance coverage, which routinely puts outrageous obstacles and Catch-22 situations in front of people who are facing dire health problems, can be improved. Really. Because you’d think if the private insurance market was going to solve these problems, it might have done so at some point in the last 50 years.
Here’s the nub of the conservative/Republican problem. Their vaunted stink tanks, generally speaking, are not set up to examine problems with an unjaundiced eye and examine how practical solutions can be found, they’re set up to start from a rigid ideological perspective and then shoehorn potential solutions into little boxes marked “free market” or “privatizing Social Security” or “clean coal.”
It’s their First Amendment right to do this, but when these supposed solutions are found to be ridiculous and dangerous, as in the case of putting Social Security funds in the stock market, or the work of corporate interests seeking to astro-turf things, as in the case of “clean” coal, it constitutes a failure by conservatives to engage in intellectually honest discourse. Has anyone who received a 401(k) statement in the last month opened it and thought, “Gee, I sure wish my Social Security money had vaporized too?”
Further exacerbating the conservative problem is that their stink tanks work in consort with what is often referred to as the right wing noise machine, the broad array of extreme-right talk radio hosts and certain cable television personalities whose sole mission seems to be pissing off liberals. (Which, given the results on Tuesday, let me just add, “Mission Accomplished!”)
Obviously, being pissed off only takes things so far. The goal now for progressive is to be as pragmatic as possible, both in ideas about solutions and in gauging the political landscape, while still trying to move the ball down the field. That’s far easier said than done, and I shudder to think of the all out assault the insurance industry might mount on even the most basic reforms to health care, but we have to try.
This isn’t an issue of civility or magnanimity. While there’s nothing wrong with those virtues, the purpose must be to figure out what in the heck is the best thing to do about the economy, the wars, our infrastructure and so on.
We have to continually remind people of the great things this country has accomplished. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, we invented new quasi-public entities like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bonneville Power Administration to bring electricity to millions of rural Americans. Dams were built, a world war was won. It wasn’t just that people tended to pull together, although sometimes I suspect that aspect may be a wee bit overstated, but more importantly the leaders of this country were willing to make their political case to the people, and then use the machinery of government to help meet the gigantic problems they faced. The conservatives did everything they could to stop FDR, and in some ways they are still fighting him. We should not shrink from this battle, but engage in it in the spirit of American democracy.
One can argue about the degree to which it is proper to use the government, but the argument that government itself must be “drowned in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist infamously said, is now itself rather far under water.
Under Lyndon B. Johnson, we extended health care to seniors and the poor. Civil rights were enshrined in federal law. Whatever the other legacies, good and bad, those things endure to this day and were not a part of trying to destroy a free market society, but were an effort to save it and improve it so that all Americans can lead fuller, more productive lives. We are above all a practical people. Programs that don’t work should be abandoned, and lessons learned from the past. Huge high-rise apartment blocks built by the government are not a good way to deal with housing issues, for example.
Invention, experimentation and the taking of reasonable risks are supposedly the hallmark of America. Somewhere out there may be a young conservative with a brilliant idea about health care, transportation or global warming. But brilliant ideas often don’t fit in neatly labeled boxes. If the Republicans hope to bring good ideas to the table, the first step would be to free themselves from the straitjacket the stink tanks have placed upon their movement, and the second step would be to free themselves from the charlatans, liars and opportunists that take advantage of them by peddling the political equivalent of snake oil on cable and radio.
How Republicans might choose to achieve the goal of generating workable ideas is, of course, up to them. It is entirely possible to have an honest think tank, one that examines issues in an objective manner, discusses possible solutions and even chooses the ones it likes best based on the worldview of its researchers and board members. An honest think tank would be completely transparent in its funding and would not engage in mendacious propaganda like “intelligent design,” to name but one example.
On the noise machine front, when conservative personalities insist upon declaring modest income tax proposals “socialist,” not only are they deliberately using inflammatory language, they are being willfully inaccurate. Which, to stress again, is a First Amendment right.
But in the end such tactics are more destructive to the conservative movement than ours. This election showed that beyond all doubt.