Sunday, March 24, 2013

Reince Picks Up The Pieces

Reince Picks Up The Pieces

Barack Obama was re-elected President of the United States last November.  While this this remarkable fact has apparently not yet reached the United State House of Representatives, thankfully, someone was able to contact Mitt Romney before he made the trip to Washington. 

Also with his ear to the ground was one Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and the man charged with snagging the shoes of the fisherman and placing them on the correct feet.

Priebus, despite the 2012 fiasco, is actually a pretty smart fellow.  He commissioned an RNC study to determine what went wrong, and last week, he presented an extensive critique of the GOP’s response to technical, nominating process, philosophical, and demographic challenges.

The technical issues are the easiest to resolve, and it seems fairly clear that anything that can be solved with time, expertise, and money, will be accomplished.  By 2016, the GOP should have in place all the digital tools it needs to match Mr. Obama’s 2012 performance.  The party’s base may not believe in science when it comes to global warming or evolution, but the party pros believe in it as necessary to win.

As to the nominating system itself, what Priebus really wants is a partial return to the old-time smoke-filled back rooms where the insiders make the safe, conventional, and “electable” choices.  He wants to shorten the process on both the front and the back ends: fewer debates, a more concentrated schedule of primaries, maybe even regional primaries, and an earlier convention.  This is smart for at least a couple of reasons; the more debates, the more the possibility of gaffes.  Perhaps more importantly, although Priebus can’t really say this: the longer the nominating period the greater the temptation and even the competition to play only to the base.  That doesn’t always go over well with the general electorate; even if you buy the Republicans core argument that the country is center-right, it is not hard right.

Enacting these reforms could be difficult.  Priebus was careful not to offend the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.  They won’t want to lose their disproportionate influence.  But any return to the back-room, or even a significant reduction in debates, offends true outsider or insurgent candidates who will have less of an opportunity if they aren’t afforded a platform. This outsider-victim mentality is a new development. Culturally, the old Republican Party always liked order; you could never imagine anything like the 1968 Democratic Convention.  Now, many hard-right conservatives, particularly Tea Party types, thrive on adrenaline-soaked high-wire acts. 

Priebus is also shrewdly focused on the changing racial demographics; by 2016, well over 30% of the potential electorate is either going to be African-American, Latino-American, or Asian American.  But, for each of the three ethic groups, the problems the GOP faces are different.

With Obama in the White House, the GOP has played jujitsu with the African-American vote; even Colin Powell’s endorsement was derided as “identity politics.”  In 2016, however, with Mr. Obama off the ticket, both the more blatant aspects of this and the more subliminal will no longer play a role.  The GOP is anticipating a large gain by virtue of the expected drop-off in African-American turnout.  What they haven’t taken into account, however, is whether any of the old-fashioned, more traditional voters who were not ready for a Barack Obama would be willing to return to the Democratic fold with a more conventional candidate.  This redistribution might not be the windfall the GOP hopes for; much of the African-American vote is concentrated in big-city Northeastern and Midwestern states (already Blue) and in the deep crimson South, so a slight reduction in minority turnout may have no impact on outcome.  It is even possible that this swapping of votes could turn out to be a net positive for the Democrats.

As for Asian-Americans, the math is substantially different, and more complex. The Asian-American community is profoundly dedicated to personal advancement through education.  Families sacrifice every material comfort to provide maximum opportunity to their children.  Their children, in turn, disproportionately fill places like New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, as well as universities such as Cal Tech and MIT.  The Santorum wing of the GOP is deeply anti-science on a number of levels.  To a group that values education as much as the Asian community does, this near-mania for Flat-Earthism shows Republicans to be unserious, and, as a result untrustworthy with power. 

Latinos, of course, have been in the bulls-eye for some time. I don’t intend to minimize the real problem of illegal immigration, which is a serious one.  But, what Priebus has, in effect, acknowledged, is that the GOP has not been able to frame the immigration debate as a legal and economic one, as opposed to a merely racial one.  The report itself says “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.” 

What Priebus does want is for the GOP to embrace some type of immigration reform that provides an easier path to legal immigration and deals humanely with the illegals already here.  Marco Rubio wants that as well, as does Jeb Bush, when he’s not changing his mind.  They have support for some of this from the pro-business wing, which wants more visas for economically useful immigrants.  Just this past weekend, Thomas Donlan, in Barron’s, made an excellent case for opening the door to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers.  Notwithstanding those influences, it’s fairly clear, that for now, the Rush wing of the party has no interest in it, and the Rush wing has control.  This is a gift to the Democrats: a slightly different GOP should have no problem attracting Latino votes; they are a group much closer to David Brooks’ “communitarian conservatism” than traditional Northeast liberalism. 

Philosophically, the bigger tent Priebus is suggesting is a very hard sell.  On “moral” issues, the evangelical wing of the party is sincere in their beliefs and is not likely to be more accommodating.  Ohio Senator Rob Portman just revealed that his son was gay and endorsed same-sex marriage.  If you will excuse the pun, Portman hasn’t exactly led a rush to the altar.  In North Dakota, the Republican dominated government has essentially banned abortion, and in Arkansas, the legislature has come close.  Several prominent Republicans, including Rick Santorum, oppose birth control. Countless school districts insist on teaching creationism.  And, politically, if what went on in CPAC is any guide, looking for a broader worldview than just Fox/Rush/Laura Ingram isn’t going to happen any time soon.  It was telling that Dick Morris (he of the 325 vote Romney landslide prediction) was a featured speaker.  The CPAC crowd just isn’t ready to hear any opposing views.

What does the future look like? The “philosophical” issues bring us back to demographics, and particularly, age.  If the GOP is the party of older whites, the country is moving in the opposite direction. It is not merely getting less white, but, inevitably, the older voters (of all races) are being replaced by the younger, and younger people think differently. Their view on ethnicity, on the role that gender should play in the workplace, and on personal choices is very different, and far more tolerant. This is not a condemnation of the older generations, merely an observation of context. The world they knew is passing.  In the new, the young don’t relate to the demands of the culture warriors and don’t share some of the more dated attitudes. 

Here, I think, is Priebus’s greatest opportunity, because if the GOP can find a way to be more tolerant, they may have a generation willing to listen to them on economic issues.  However socially liberal younger voters may be, they are not New Deal Democrats.  This was vividly demonstrated to me this past weekend.  On Saturdays, I run in the park with a group that’s mostly about half my age.  One of the leaders grew up in the Midwest, served in Afghanistan, and now is stateside and trying to make his way in the sometimes unforgiving world of New York.  After the run, he talked to me a bit; he holds down three jobs and plays in a band, and never gets enough sleep.  He was tired of always trying to keep up; he wanted the system to respect his work. I inserted some well-meaning Northeastern liberal claptrap.  My mistake. He wasn’t asking for anything beyond understanding. Nor did he feel that he should support others who weren’t willing to make the same efforts that he did. If I had taken the time to listen more closely, instead of staying in my own middle-aged sure-of-myself comfort zone, I would have realized that. 

To that end, I was struck by a report  by David Remnick in The New Yorker about remarks Mr. Obama made during his  recent trip to the Middle East.  Instead of addressing the Knesset, he chose a younger, more liberal, more sympathetic group.  He spoke more intimately, touched on the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians, about dignity, and the two-state process.  In his words, peace comes “Not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in some carefully designed process, but in the daily connections, that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together in this land and in this sacred city of Jerusalem. And let me say this as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”

Mr. Obama has an oft-derided gift for pretty words, but this time he was right on target.  That young crowd, more open-minded and accepting than the older generation of hard-liners who had fought several wars, would either have to accept the choices made by their elders, and the consequences, or push for a different future—their future.

I better go back to my running group next Saturday and open my ears and my mind.  I hope Reince Priebus doesn’t get there first.


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