WASHINGTON, May 20, 2013 ― For a few months it looked as though the GOP might attempt a genuine reorganization around a slightly saner, more pragmatic brand. The brief Republican Spring is wilting as the party’s frothing base reestablishes firm control over the party’s direction.
Republicans who want to see the party restored to relevance will have to start forcefully asserting their independence from the craziest extremes. There is no other way to restore GOP credibility. The major concern now for rational Republicans is how to wage that internal fight in a manner that preserves a chance of winning control of the brand.
Controlling the Republican name is important. A third party is a very weak option. The last time a third-party emerged successfully in America the result was a civil war. Holding onto the brand will not be easy, but it should be a primary goal at the outset.
The party still functions. It still has offices, budgets, and most importantly, the legal ability to place candidates on the ballot in every corner of the country. Beyond that structural capacity the party is deeply ill and losing any capacity to shape policy or any hope of governing effectively at the national level.
Traditional Republicans have been reluctant to engage in open dissent out of respect for party’s ethos of disciplined unity. Tea party groups couldn’t care less about unity. They have shown no concern whatsoever in undermining party interests in favor of their own. “Party unity” is a pillow pressed over our faces. It will be necessary to forge compromises to make any party realignment work, but an open split with the extremist wing will have to come first.
What would a successful revolt look like? It should come in three phases.
First, the Republican organizations alienated by the party’s extremist binge need to make contact with one another and begin to coordinate. We must work together to build institutions, even small ones, with more formal organization than we can sustain through Facebook groups or message boards.
This is a time-consuming, costly step, but it cannot be skipped. When Virginia Lt. Governor Bill Bolling explored the option of challenging tea party darling Ken Cuccinelli for Governor as an “Independent Republican” he quickly declined. He found that there were no organized, prepared institutions ready to assemble campaign resources and money to support such an effort. We have to build those structures.
Who might participate in such an effort? Perhaps conservative donors who have supported marriage equality initiatives; GOP County officials in the North and in urban areas frustrated by pressure from tea party groups or weakened by an extremist national message; conservative minority groups tired of being patronized by national Republicans and scorned by the far right; traditional conservative commercial interests more concerned about infrastructure, education, and economic development than divisive culture war issues. The interests exist, but no one is attempting to rally them to a cause like this.
In the second phase, those institutions need to hash together a pragmatic policy agenda that party figures and potential candidates can rally around. We need a core program that preserves traditional Republican commercial priorities without the corrosive white identity appeals that have poisoned Republican expansion.
Armed with a loose organization and a coherent agenda, rational Republicans will then be in a position to offer cover and support to candidates or party officials who want to openly challenge the extremes. We will be ready for the third step, providing assistance to a major Republican candidate who chooses to run a general election campaign against a more extreme GOP nominee. We could offer alternatives for a future Mike Castle or Richard Lugar unwilling to roll over for the Tea Party.
This is the critical gateway that all the early efforts should aim toward – a series of successful high-profile post-primary contests that will expose the weakness of the extremist fringe. This will set up crucial confrontations inside the party infrastructure that will force previously reluctant insiders to openly choose sides. In that effort, pragmatists will then have allies in office openly aligned with (and indebted to) the effort.
All of this is much easier said than done, but we can’t start doing it until more people are willing to discuss this possibility in the open. Can Republicans win without the tea party? Absolutely, and we can start doing it consistently if we drop the useless pretense of “unity.” Voters have responded extremely well to candidates who have deliberately set themselves against the extremes.
Senator Lisa Murkowski won a write-in campaign in 2010 against her own party’s tea party-backed nominee. Maine Senator Angus King cruised to victory in 2012 with no party support from either side. Former Republican Lincoln Chafee won a race for Governor of Rhode Island without party support. In the 2012 election, not a single Senate or Gubernatorial candidate won a greater share of the vote than Romney by running to his right.
If David Dewhurst had continued his fight for Texas’ Senate seat into the general election campaign, no one today would remember Ted Cruz. That did not happen because the pragmatic conservatives who form the largest bloc of the electorate had no organization to support him and no cover with which to protect from the downside risks. That has to change.
General election voters would warmly welcome a candidate willing to stand up to the far right. The challenge comes from the primary process and the party infrastructure. We must build institutions strong enough to support a general election campaign for a pragmatic Republican that bypasses the primary.
The tea party’s signature victories have come from defeating Republicans in the low-participation environment of primaries and caucuses. They cannot hold their own against candidates who refuse to submit to the will of a tiny minority of activists. The far right political program is a rotten door just waiting to be kicked in.
Fielding successful general election challenges to radical nominees will only complete the first stage in restoring the party’s potency. More work will lie beyond that goal to re-establish the party’s dominant hold on America’s center-right coalition. To get started, traditional Republicans need only find their voice and stiffen their spines. Once we do, we’ll wonder why we waited so long.
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