I think it’s time that I admit the obvious: I have an obsession with the GOP. And I don’t mean that in the general sense that I have an obsession with politics – I mean it in the sense that I find the GOP absolutely fascinating. Witness, Exhibit A:
Also, the GOP drives me absolutely bonkers. Witness, Exhibit B:
Yes, that’s Clint Eastwood making snide remarks about the fact that Barack Obama is a lawyer. And yes, he is doing that at the nominating convention for another man, Mitt Romney, who not only also holds a law degree, but in fact holds it from the same school where the President got his.
More broadly, this is the party that brought you the hoopla over the President’s birth certificate, that accused the Bureau of Labor Statistics of making up unemployment numbers, and that thought that the polling leading up to 2012 was a liberal math conspiracy. They also brought you this and this. And let’s not forget about the WMDs that were not in Iraq.
I’m just going to be honest here: it doesn’t take a lot to convince many of my friends that the GOP is slightly unhinged and detached from reality.
That’s unfortunate, because the GOP also has a lot of really good ideas. Take, for example, free trade. This probably isn’t the time for an in-depth conversation about the costs and benefits of liberalizing trade. But when trade comes up, the Democrats tend to focus more on the concrete and highly-visible costs that are borne by real voters – say, the factory jobs that will be lost by workers in Ohio. Those people tend to know exactly who they are.
On the other hand, the GOP tends to focus more on the gains that will redound to the economy: everyone will be marginally better off and people in new sectors will benefit in ways we can’t predict yet. That’s largely correct, but it’s too abstract for electoral politics. It’s a tough argument to make convincingly, one which requires the sort of soft touch that Republicans aren’t exactly known for.
Similarly, consider the long-standing debate about the proper size of government. Democrats aren’t very open to the argument that the size of government matters a whole lot: if an idea is worth doing, than it’s worth doing. Republicans retort, dishonestly, that Democrats want the government to do everything. What’s left on the sidelines is the much better conservative idea that the aggregate administrative weight of a lot of good government programs can have negative consequences.
Then there are the libertarians, who have a fraught but largely symbiotic relationship with the Republican base. Sure, some of those guys are pretty weird; like the ones who seemed excited about letting uninsured people die. But even so, they provide some of the most sincere defenses of privacy and civil liberties that our national dialogue has to offer. And from a philosophical standpoint, a lot of Americans firmly agree with their contention that rights belong to people, not groups. (I am one of those Americans.)
The problem is that along with the salutary serving of sound ideas, you also get a heaping helping of mouth-watering crazy. There really is no other way for me to describe the bizarro-world conspiracy mongering that led the Senate to vote against ratifying the U.N Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or the echo chamber that inspired Reince Priebus, the chairman of the RNC, to suggest letting Rush Limbaugh moderate a Presidential debate.
And that’s on top of the Right’s penchant to talk about race, immigration, gay rights, and women’s issues in ways that seem designed to be included in tomorrow’s version of “You wouldn’t believe what they used to say when I was a kid”.
Of course, the Democrats have their own sins, like the Party’s general recalcitrance on nuclear energy or their mostly self-defeating approach to gun control or the fact that they’re largely captured by the unions. On a lot of issues, to be quite frank about it, the Republicans have the better side of the argument.
But no matter how much you squint, the Democratic Party simply isn’t the mirror image of the GOP. Simply put, the Democrats are put together as a coalition that is largely built around winning elections. The modern Republican Party is, to a much greater degree, an idealogical exercise. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself if you can imagine the (modern) Democratic Party telling itself that it lost an election because it wasn’t liberal enough. On the other hand, the GOP routinely argues that the only thing they need to do to get more Americans to agree with them is to espouse what they espouse now, only harder.
That’s what makes the Republicans’ internal struggle over the soul of the Party the most interesting story in American politics. While groups like Heritage Action, Focus on the Family, and FreedomWorks are actively trying to push the GOP in the direction of the John Birch society, the Republican establishment is trying to find ways to fight back. It’s all very messy – and fascinating.
What people like me, and maybe you, want is a free-market approach to governing that strives to provide, within a pluralistic society, an effective but minimally-sized social safety net along with high levels of social mobility. I also support an engaged foreign policy that doesn’t shy away from promoting American values abroad. I know: it doesn’t make for a great bumper sticker. Even so, I’ll be happy to vote for whatever party is willing to give me that.
But there are also a lot of us who would rather make our peace with the less-than-ideal policies of the Left than have to throw in with the crazy that some on the Right all too readily embrace. I’m guessing, however, that I’m not the only one who’s a bit disappointed in that choice.
For now, I’ll settle for the political parties disciplining each other. I count on Democrats to focus on the social safety net for the sake of equitable outcomes, but I count on the Republicans to complain about paying for it in order to guard against fiscal disaster. Who knows – maybe they can prod each other into finding more efficient ways of doing things, rather than fighting over whether to do things poorly or not do them at all. The whole time, naturally, each of them will set themselves up as the avatar of American greatness and denigrate the efforts of the other side.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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