Scott Brown's victory and Obama's falling poll numbers were virtually undeserved gifts to a Republican party that for the most part spent the year on the sidelines, benefiting from grassroots activism without actually doing much about it. It's little wonder that Michael Steele is widely hated or that there's talk of a third party. But to fix the Republican party, it's important to understand what is behind its malaise.
As I wrote in my article, "A Revolutionary Party Once Again", the Republican party needs to be able to fight for change, instead of defending a constantly eroding conformity. The left's counterculture has successfully shifted the battle lines over and over again, because they played cultural offense, while conservatives have played cultural defense. That same phenomenon has occurred in virtually every arena, and politically it has left Republicans ahead on points, but without an actual agenda.
In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, the Republican party was disoriented, confused and lost... because its leadership has no real understanding of how to turn weakness into strength, or to agitate against those in power. And so it was left to the Tea Partiers and others to express the anger that so many Americans were feeling.
2. The Republican Party Fears Extremism - Liberalism's cultural dominance meant that they were able to define conservative Republicans as either evil bankers or klansmen. The Republican party has since worked hard to avoid being associated with anything that smacks of extremism, not that this changes the false image that has been created at all.
Essentially the Republican party has learned to act like an oppressed minority, working hard to avoid being associated with their stereotype. The problem is that you don't beat a stereotype by running the other way. All that does is show vulnerability and limits your freedom of action. Any member of a minority group learns sooner or later that the best way to deal with a stereotype is to do what you think is right, and ignore the stereotype. But instead the Republican party ran from it, and ran all the way from its own base.
Where the Democratic party embraced its grass roots, staged managed as they were, the Republican party has been afraid to do it. But ignoring the power of populism is foolish, as Brown's victory demonstrated. And by trying to make a show of being so much more "moderate" than their base, the Republican party has repeatedly compromised away its principles and alienated its base.
The only way to defeat a charge is to demonstrate that it has no power over you. Yet nationalist and conservative groups throughout the First World have fallen into this same trap, retreating to an imaginary high ground, while their pursuers only increase the venom of their accusations in direct proportion to the willingness shown by conservatives to compromise. You do not defeat such enemies by giving in to them, but by aggressively confronting them.
And by running away from its base, the Republican party has empowered actual extremists by ceding issues such as immigration, civil liberties, states' rights and economic conservatism to them. Meanwhile the party itself becomes more milquetoast day by day, and has bred a culture of tameness in which the leadership is terrified of anything that might disturb the status quo, and dreads being associated with sign wavers and angry people. But the party needs those sign wavers and angry people to give it passion and meaning. To make it more than a list of candidates, but an idea and a cause.
3. The Republican Party is Playing it Safe - See 1. The Republican party chose to wait out Obama's first year and let him destroy himself. Arguably they can claim that the strategy worked out nicely for them. The party's fortunes are on the rise again, with very little risk to anyone besides Joe Wilson. But that is exactly the problem.
And so the GOP has rested on its laurels, picking safe battles on social issues without ever really committing to them, denouncing big government without doing much about it and being satisfied to win victories by pointing out that their enemies would plunge the country into a socialist nightmare... without actually saying it in so many words or doing anything to stop them in the long run.
While the left has been changing the country, the Republican party has been focused on winning elections. Essentially the Republicans have been playing checkers, while their enemies have been playing chess... and the results are all around us. It's time to stop playing it safe, and actually work to change the country for the better.
4. The Republican Party is Big Business Minded - While capitalism is a good thing, not everything that's good for corporate donors is good for America. On some issues, such as immigration, the Republican Party has embraced corporate positions over populist ones. On others, such as the War on Terror, it has embraced a compromised line to avoid hurting international trade.
Big businesses look for stability, and the Republican party has all too often complied by being the party of making no waves. It has sought bipartisanship and compromises, and listened to lobbyists more than to tis base. But while stability is a virtue, sometimes you need to fight to change the status quo. And sometimes you need to make waves.
Because making America safe for free enterprise will require making waves and rolling back a lot of the existing bureaucracy, some of which actually benefits major corporations by inhibiting competition from small businesses. If the Republican continues to embrace stability above all else, socialism will come. And that will hurt many of the same companies who insist on a tamer Republican party.
Protecting American free enterprise, whether from socialism or Islamic terrorism, in the long run will involve some short term shocks. But it will be to recreate America as a country where free enterprise actually means something besides having to fill out a mound of paperwork just to be able to lean back in your own chair.
5. The Republican Party Can't Get Angry - Populists have to be able to feel and channel the frustration and anger of the people they represent, but it's been a while since Republicans have shown that they can get angry. While the Democrats have been very good at showing their anger, Republicans have tried to be the adults. But there is a positive side to anger, because it can channel passion into action. The passion of the protesters over the last year have shown what focused activism on the right can accomplish. But to really make use of that energy, the party needs to understand their constituents anger at what is being done to them.
Joe Wilson's outburst may have been shocking, but for so many it crystalized what they had been feeling, and they were thrilled to see a congressman willing to say it for them. That doesn't mean Republican Senators need to begin shouting and throwing things. But it does mean that they need to show that they are passionate about fighting for their constituents. Anyone can put on the right sound bite, but emotion connects at a visceral level, projects sincere beliefs and causes a message to memorably resonate. And at a time when even leading Democrats are angry at each other, the Republican House and Senate leadership has been barely noticeable in the fray.
It is easy enough for the leadership to glow at Scott Brown's victory, but unless they actively channel the frustration of the message that the people of Massachusetts wanted to send, that glow will soon fade.
6. The Republican Party has No Real Agenda - To lead people, you need to point the way forward. Instead whether it's Michael Steele or toy elephants, the party has tried to reinvent its image, instead of leading with its ideals. The Republican Party has been willing to talk about the evils of big government, more than it has been willing to do anything about big government. It has been willing to talk about fiscal conservativism, more than it has been willing to practice it... and the list goes on and on.
Being the voice of reason, the common sense alternative to the nuts who would turn everything over to the government, dismantle the military and make sure every children's cartoon includes at least one transsexual puppet is fine. It's easy going and you don't need to make any waves. All you have to do is criticize the lunacy, while passing and enforcing compromised versions of that same lunacy. And unfortunately that is exactly what the Republican party has been doing for a while now.
It's not enough to say no, when you really mean sorta yes. And it's not enough to just say no, either. You actually need to work toward a vision. As ugly as it may be, the Democrats do have a vision. All too often Republicans don't, because the party has become detached from its great leaders like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan, who fought for what they believed in, and instead have been satisfied to be moderately mediocre. To be generally inoffensive. To stake out positions that most people agree with, and then sort of agree with them (but not too much).
To have a vision you must want to change things. The Democrats do and they've gotten very far doing it. The protesters at the Town Halls want to change things, but their party isn't listening to them. The spirit of a party is not at the polling booth or in the tv commercial or the neatly printed election day leaflet, but in the beliefs that its members want to fight for and the vision that they have of what America should be.
There is neither pride nor meaning in winning simply because the public thinks that the Democrats are failures or nuts. It is a victory that accomplishes nothing except to slow the rate of decay. A meaningful victory is one fought and won for a vision of America, one that holds true to the freedom of its citizens, to the defense of its borders, and the supremacy of its ideals. Only recovering those ideals as passionate principles worth fighting for, not paying mere lip service to, will restore the party's spirit again.