CHICAGO, August 19, 2013 — Chris Christie told an RNC gathering in Boston last week that “if we don’t win, we don’t govern,” a thinly veiled jab at Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and the Tea Party wing of the party. Though Republicans have long been wary of open internal conflict, Christie’s combative approach may be the last hope for reality-based Republicans. Those who want to right the party with a quiet, DLC-style internal campaign are grasping at straws.
In the wake of Reagan’s towering 1984 electoral victory a core of Democratic moderates began a concerted effort to rebrand their party. They formed a network of PACs and a think tank under the umbrella of the Democratic Leadership Council, which over the course of a decade led the party of Walter Mondale toward Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the age of big government is over.”
Many are hoping that a similar effort could restore some balance to the Republican Party. They tend to gloss over the significant organizational differences between the parties and underestimate the severity of the GOP’s challenges. A Republican DLC will not work. The party is headed for a much more confrontational reorganization that will probably not even begin until the GOP experiences an open political schism.
What the DLC actually did was act as a smaller scale alternative to the Democratic National Committee. In the early years they tried to operate in as collegial a fashion as possible, avoiding primary challenges while trying to influence the Democratic base toward more moderate positions.
They raised enough money to build a small organization then leveraged contacts in Washington and among major corporate donors to become a factor in Democratic elections. They put sympathetic Congressmen in touch with donors who would support them. They provided research and polling to back centrist proposals. The DLC in the early years tried to develop into a haven that could protect centrist Democrats.
It is vital to remember that this initial phase of the DLC was mostly a failure. The organization did not start gaining ground politically until it dropped its conciliatory stance and began openly challenging the far left.
When the DLC began to take a more confrontational stance against the Democratic extremes, the game began to change. Clinton is often regarded as their greatest achievement, but it’s difficult to imagine him winning if not for the fact that every major Democratic figure passed on the ’92 campaign in the belief that Bush was unbeatable.
The real success of the DLC came later in the decade, and only after the Democrats faced more punishing Congressional losses. By ’98, almost 100 Congressman were associated with the DLC and its policy priorities were starting to become law.
So why can’t this model be repeated on the Republican side of the aisle?
First, the two organizations are very different. The Democratic Party structure is dominated by extra-political organizations like unions, Planned Parenthood, community associations, and others. These are not merely advocacy groups, but organizations that must fulfill operational goals in the world beyond Washington. They depend on government influence for much of their survival.
Practically all of these groups were ideologically opposed to the work of the DLC, but their extra-political character forced them to be pragmatic in ways that affected political calculations.
A union can only afford to push so far on ideology alone. Isolating themselves politically by picking losing candidates too often is a mistake with potentially existential consequences. Even if it was not possible for the DLC to forge alliances with these groups, there were limits to how far they would go in opposition.
Extra-political groups could be dissuaded from resorting to the most extreme and destructive tactics. Their members could often be persuaded to help moderate causes even if the leadership did not agree. The extra-political groups at the core of Democratic politics could not afford a scorched earth fight. Rhetorically they were absolutely opposed to the DLC, but in practical terms there were limits to the potential scope of the conflict.
There are few examples of extra-political groups with influence in the Republican Party. None are involved at the core. The modern GOP is a collection of issue-advocacy interests, most of whom would find their reason for existence destroyed by a pragmatic resolution of their core interests. If the abortion question were finally resolved in America, even in favor of a total ban, the National Right to Life Committee would be dead the next day.
Their fundraising leverage comes from controversy rather than outcomes. They cannot be deterred by failure, therefore they are perpetually untroubled by the party’s drift from relevance. They don’t need to govern effectively, so they are resistant to any deterrence.
The power of advocacy groups can only be blunted by failure in general elections. The low-turnout structure of primary elections and the base-dominated nature of primaries mean that there is no appeal that can win without taking a challenge to the general election voters.
Even then, these organizations will not dry up or go away. A sustained effort to bypass the broken primary process may at least allow rational, pragmatic Republicans to build competing institutions with access to political influence. A successful rebellion will not eclipse the extremists, it will just provide pragmatic voices an option to compete and lift the anchor that is trapping the party in its most unpractical positions.
The DLC model was successful in large part because the organizational dynamics of the Democratic Party made it more sensitive to failure. Unions and other far-left interests remained deeply hostile to the DLC, but they were only willing to go so far in opposing them. There are no pragmatic interests at the core of Republican politics whose interests make compromise essential.
General election voters would restore the influence of traditional Republicans, but reaching those voters over the resistance of Republican grassroots activists will be costly and rancorous. Until we resolve to do it, our other efforts will be largely wasted.
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