The just released GOP post mortem on the 2012 election is either wishy-washy, cynical, ambiguous or confused, depending on your level of charity. Personally, I would call it useless, as any internal assessment is likely to be when an organization knows that it will be dissected by unfriendly critics and used against them by outright enemies. It is also depressing.
In its essence, the report is about “messaging,” a.k.a marketing, a.k.a. “making people like what you’re peddling by not really letting them know the truth about it.” Undeniably, the Democrats have been better at this in recent years, as passing Obamacare without ever explaining what was in it either to the public or the legislators voting for it, running in 2008 as the tonic for all of George W. Bush’s supposed assaults on human and Constitutional rights and then pretty much adopting all of them and a couple more, like drone strikes, and perhaps most of all, making “transparency” a centerpiece of the 2008 campaign and then delivering a governing style that is anything but. “Messaging” to political parties means “lying” to the so-called “low information voter,” and no doubt about it, the Democrats were better at lying—not necessarily more prolific at it, now, but better—than Republicans in 2012
They must be so proud.
Thus the post mortem lurches between vague appeals to messaging and disturbing assertions that principle and integrity are just too darn risky in 2013 America. For example, the report notes that Republicans were tarred as the party of the rich–hardly a new label, based on those 1920′s political cartoons I have on file, but apparently more Americans don’t like rich people, and would rather be poor people who take the rich people’s money, or something…the report isn’t quite clear on why being rich in America is now somehow a bad thing. The report, therefore, seems to suggest a range of alternatives:
- Convincing the public that the GOP isn’t “the party of the rich,” meaning in 2013, isn’t the party that says that it’s perfectly respectable to be rich, want to be rich, and to hold on to the assets to make you rich once you acquire them…even though it is.
- Stop being the “party of the rich,” and start taking the recently popular position of vilifying the rich and holding them responsible for all the problems of the poor, while, of course, still being funded by the rich, or
- Becoming the party of the rich that “cares,” meaning that it advocates simultaneously allowing people to become rich while making sure they have to give as much of their money as possible to those who aren’t, while also making it as hard to become rich as possible, since caring about the non-rich means penalizing the rich.
By my reading, the first is a lie, the last is self-contradictory, and the middle is the Democratic Party.
One can also read the report as a poignant exercise in charting an ethical course when “everybody does it” (or “everybody likes and/or wants it”) is working against you, you have to win elections to accomplish anything, and you think “everyone” is wrong. That is a critical issue, not just for Republicans, but for all of us, and the public discourse about that dilemma as it affects the Republicans is unsettling. Journalists, Democrats and a lot of Republicans have been saying, as if there’s no flaw in their ethics or logic, that if enough people want something, then the Republicans should just be for it too, or else. That is a rejection of ethics, both for society, the Republican Party, and the United States. I don’t dispute that it’s one way to win elections, but it is an abdication of the duty of public servants in a republic. The path that smug critics of Republicans are now endorsing would have kept slavery in place for decades longer and ensured that the U.S. sat by while Hitler overran Europe. Many of the editorials about the Republicans’ problem have pointed to Sen. Rob Portman’s convenient back-flip on gay rights as a template for the party on that and other controversial issues. Yup, by all means—integrity is the problem. Can’t have that.
There is a middle ground, however, and that is where responsible and ethical governing in the U.S. once resided. The two poles of naked expediency and rigid absolutism are equally dangerous and irresponsible, yet one would think, from the predominant sentiment emanating from the chattering class, that the GOP has to choose one or the other. Absolutism, which requires drawing a line in the sand and fighting on it to the death, can be noble and even successful, but this is also the realm where the maxim “Pick your battles” has to apply, as does Davy Crockett’s creed about making sure you’re right before forging ahead. The country doesn’t need another political party that simply calculates what will sell at the polls and then adopts it…indeed, it doesn’t need even one.
It needs a party that leads from in front, not behind, that stand for principles, but will compromise to govern, and that, to be blunt, doesn’t stop thinking, evaluating and analyzing once a position is reached. In some areas, like tax policy, Republicans simply have an absolute position that is unrealistic, impractical, and illogical. In some areas, like gay rights, the party has an absolute position that is antiquated, ignorant, harmful and justly unpopular. In some areas, like illegal immigration, it has a position that might have been responsible and principled at one time, but now supports an impossible goal. Finally, in some areas, it holds positions that are principled, difficult, and worthy of the fight. That fight, however, only makes sense if it is accompanied by persuasion, and persuasion should mean honesty and reason, not “messaging.”
Rolling up all of these variations into a big sloppy ball and saying the problem is “messaging” is both lazy and incompetent. The Republicans need to think about what their positions are, and be perceptive, analytical and realistic about the arguments supporting them, changed circumstance, political realities, and how to temper absolutism with benign utilitarianism. The country has to be governed, and a political party that obstructs governing on principle is an unethical political party because it isn’t capable of doing its job. A party that allows too many incompetent, unethical and intellectually deficient individuals to occupy key roles (See: Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, Michael Steele, Donald Trump, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, et al.) is also incapacitated.
A party that determines its positions and principles solely according to what will attract the most votes, however, deserves no respect or trust, and isn’t a political party at all.
Graphic: Talking Points Memo