Monday, March 18, 2013

Bending vs. Breaking: The GOP Revision

When the Vatican conclave selected a new pope there was some immediate discussion about the guy's views on homosexuality. contraception, and gay rights. Some people seemed to think it was news that the newly elected pope is hardline on all these things (no gay adoption, no gay marriage, etc.).

How does this rate even recycled electrons? This is the pope, guys.

Meanwhile, down at CPAC, there is some news that's "similar." And by "similar" I mean that there is meta-discussion--that's "discussion about discussion"--concerning issues that are going to shape Republican strategy for years to come.

Specifically these are:

  1. Immigration--specifically around a path to citizenship and the vote.
  2. Gay rights--specifically around gay marriage.
  3. The race card and the racial device--specifically around African Americans.
We all know the story of the Oak and the Reed: The oak trusts its strength to stand against the wind and is blown over. The reed bends and remains standing. The story tells us that when facing enough opposition you either give a bit or ... you break. 

In the case of the Vatican, it's ... c'mon, people: IT's the freakin' Vatican. They are not--and should not--elect a gay-friendly pope. Whatever you may think about the bible and gays--or think about church doctrine concerning the heliocentric nature of the solar system and the church's ability to change its mind--the time for a shift  by the head of the Catholic church is not today. It ain't happening. Fifty years from now? Who's to say.

Religious organizations, by nature of guidance by a higher authority, cannot change their doctrine with a simple election.

Not so for political ones--but for the GOP, with it's religious--and religiously right-wing base--the question is: will the party be able to find compromises that stand against the coming tides of change which first landed hard in 2012 and threaten to continue to lap against the shores of American politics.

Bending vs. Breaking: Immigration
In the case of Immigration, the "tide" is (a) the demographic rise of Latin American voters, (b) their tendency to vote Democrat (at least in the last election) in increasing numbers, and (c) improved directed targeting of the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort. 

The Bending: The discussions at CPAC ranged from a robust visa program (more legally working immigrants) to changes to immigration policy to make it easier. Their sticking point is on a pathway to citizenship which, the fear is, would create millions of Democratic voters but, also, is unfair to people trying to do this the right and legal way.

The Breaking: Marco Rubio, poster-boy for immigration reform, said almost nothing about immigration in his speech, making it clear that, to the conservative audience at least, any moderate position is a loser. Jeb Bush, conversely, released a book suggesting legal status only (no citizenship, no vote) but gave a speech that was far more moderate in tone. Which is it? My read of the conservative blogs and Twitter matches this synopsis: 
The immigration discussion drew a few heckles from the crowd and some harsh response on Twitter. Mark Krikorian, the head of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes immigration, said the panel is "flacking for the Democrats' amnesty plan.''
My Conclusion: I think the GOP can bend on this but it won't matter. The GOP base won't tone down their rhetoric and that, coupled with immigrant's seeing the government as an aid to their getting ahead rather than a hindrance (according to some polling) will convince them that the GOP base sees them as indigent, probably illegal freeloaders who should self-deport. In this climate, even moderate compromise won't make much difference and the (disappointing) results will lend more credence to the hardliner's stance that nothing should have been done in the first place.

If you doubt me, consider that just about everyone who is talking about "messaging" in the GOP is frantically waving their arms saying "You've gotta tone it down, guys--WHATEVER you do, you've gotta tone it down!"
Regardless of policy outcomes, Republicans must change their rhetoric about immigration, said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster who has worked for Sen. Marco Rubio.
"The idea that we can use harsh tones against the undocumented without affecting the way Americans see us is just delusional," he said.
Bending vs. Breaking: Gay Marriage
 There was pretty much deafening silence at CPAC about gay rights which wouldn't be all that notable except that (a) GOProud, a gay Republican group had been denied the chance to represent and (b) Rob Portman came out with an about-face on gay marriage: his son being gay convinced him that gay marriage was okay. Notably, Portman was a contender for the presidential nomination (i.e. a sane choice) and was vetted as Mitt Romney's VP--and told Mitt he had a gay son. It wasn't a deal breaker but, uh, he's known about this for some time. The timing of the announcement made some people think he was coordinating with gay rights groups. Who's to say.

The Bending: Portman has certainly changed his position but the gay vote is simply too small to be, by itself, material to elections. That said, most people now think it is a matter of time: younger voters at CPAC were almost united in their not-caring much about the issue. Some observers think that if someone like Portman can switch then it's over.

The Breaking: Only 23% of Republicans currently support gay marriage. There is still vocal opposition to it from religious conservatives and the feeling is that the support for gay marriage is akin to bullying of conservatives.
And on a CPAC panel on bullying faced by conservatives, titled “Stop THIS: Threats, Harassment, Intimidation, Slander & Bullying from the Obama administration,” Brian Brown, president of National Organization for Marriage, maintained opposition to marriage equality is a conservative principle.
“When you hear someone act as if standing up and believing for the truth about marriage is not a conservative principle is not the truth, refuse to back down, refuse to be cowed, do not accept the notion that this is an issue that somehow we can’t talk about or we can’t debate,”
My Conclusion: While the idea that gay marriage is de-facto destructive to the fabric of America is in question (i.e. arguments about marriage being a pillar of social virtue that must include a man and a woman for, for example, child-bearing reasons) the religious underpinnings of the argument won't go away. I do not believe that a decade is enough for evangelicals to adjust their course on this. They may allow some moderation for pragmatic reasons but gay marriage will be a litmus test for true conservatives for the next decade at least. If this causes continued fallout with the under 30 crowd it will be a break.

Bending vs. Breaking: The Race Card
Dr. Ben Carson is one of the more exciting conservatives on the field today. Highly educated, from humble beginnings  and black, he is extremely conservative and more than happy to stand up to Obama (which he did at the national prayer breakfast, tweaking him to-his-face to the delight of conservatives everywhere). His speech at CPAC was well received.  On the other hand ...

The National Review ran a post lauding the shoe shine guy (a black guy at CPAC) with this picture:
Yeah ... I might've just had him stand up for the picture ...
And the race-relations panel was disrupted by a guy lauding slavery for giving slaves food and shelter ... There's a fairly amazing video on the link (It's the left-wing ThinkProgess so take the analysis with a grain of salt).

The Bending: The GOP, for what I'll refer to here as 'structural reasons' (which includes older, whiter majorities--as well as core of deep south voters in its base) is susceptible to charges of racism. Whether you think these are true or not--or think that the Democrats are worse (and, to be fair, anyone who doesn't think there aren't raving racists in the Democrats has their heads in the sand)--everyone paying any attention whatsoever should agree that the charges are far more damaging to Republicans than to Democrats.

This used to be the case with weak-on crime and the guns issue (although that may be changing) for Democrats. Until Obama the National Security argument was a lock for Republicans. But the race thing? That's a point Republicans need to shore up. They may never get the same percent of the vote Obama did--but embracing black people like Carson is appealing to the GOP because of this issue.

The Breaking: The issue won't be with blacks who will likely have made up their minds already (and stuff like that CPAC clip isn't going to help)--but with younger voters who, as with the gay issue, will see the lack of message discipline around race issues (the guy in the video being applauded) and the cleaving to minority or women Republicans before a sea of white AARP members as an indication that something might be wrong. In short, if the Republicans are seen as "potentially racist" and the Democrats are not, this will hurt them more and more as time goes on. As long as it's okay to wear a Confederate battle flag to CPAC the bleeding will continue.

My Conclusion: The race issue is contentious because it mixes things that are legitimate areas of discussion (percentage of minority groups receiving federal aid and how that impacts their lives socially and career wise) with things that are not (asking if Frederick Douglass "forgave" his former slave master for "giving him food and shelter"). Separating that out requires finesse and a certain level of emotional detachment. Republican messaging by the base has shown little ability with either. The result is akin to a boxer who keeps dropping his hands to reveal a glass jaw. Yes, not every blow that his opponent lands may be a fair one--but the blows? They will keep landing.

The GOP's strategy for 2014 and 2016 will undoubtedly consist of probably 80% execution (better technology, better circumstances for base turn-out during a mid-term election, and, of course, not having to run against Obama again) with 20% revision (new messaging, new tactics, and new outreach). This is probably the right mix for the next cycle.

The problem is that I'm not sure which of the "new coalition" the GOP is going to effectively target. Hispanics are hard to bring on-board if there's a fairly loud segment of the population that sounds like they don't like them. It's going to be hard to bring on young voters and single women when the messaging around gays is negative (and the religious basis for much of it may be what's turning off Jewish voters and Asians).

In short, it's not the policy--but the messaging--and I don't see much of a chance to change that. The GOP is going to have to hope that (a) they close the tech gap (at least somewhat) and that (b) the mid-term demographics hold out along with the 2016 Democratic candidate not being as exciting as Obama was.

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