The big idea in the GOP’s long-awaited autopsy report is that the party can reconnect with the American majority by simply selling its rigid ideology more effectively, and by simply tweaking its primary season machinery. Yes, this is what passes for a big idea.
The bigger, immediate problem is that the Republican National Committee report, which seeks to bring the party together, has actually stoked internal tensions all over again. The tea-partyers are convinced that the proposed tweakings – fewer primary debates! shorter primary calendar! – are part of an establishment plot to decimate grassroots conservatives. Because if underfinanced insurgent candidates have fewer opportunities to get free TV debate exposure, and if they’re forced to sustain a speedier pace of primaries, then clearly a well-financed establishment candidate is going to win.
The key report passages are buried on pages 71-3: “The current system is a long, winding, often random road that makes little sense. It stretches out the process too long….The number of debates has become ridiculous….We believe it is better for the party to have a nominee selected earlier in the 2016 cycle rather than later.”
The party brass, led by chairman Reince Priebus, believes that Republicans were badly damaged by the ’12 intramurals – notably the two-dozen debates that dotted the calendar for nearly a year, and the long primary season that wound up bloodying Mitt Romney. Priebus said this week that if the GOP stages fewer debates and tightens the contest calendar, it would successfully cut “the amount of slicing and dicing that goes on in our party.”
There’s a fundamental flaw in the leaders’ thinking, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s hear from the conservative insurgents. They were ticked off at the party establishment already (they viewed Romney as a happless, conviction-free establishment candidate), and these proposed tweaks tick them off even more. How, they ask, can an under-financed renegade compete with a Romney-type candidate if there are far fewer opportunities to level the playing field – which is what happens in debates, where they all get free TV exposure?
And what about the establishment’s idea of slashing the number of state caucuses? The tea partyers hate that one. Last time around, Ron Paul types succeeded in flooding a lot of caucuses – which are suspectible to flooding because caucuses draw far fewer voters than primaries do. The autopsy report says, “Our party needs to grow its membership” and “broaden its base,” whereas caucuses tend to be dominated by the base. Party leaders are sick of being dominated by the base; as they lament in their report, “We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people.”
Problem is, the base loves caucuses; as an adviser to Ron Paul’s son warned this week, “Elimination of caucuses would mean nuclear war with the grassroots, social conservatives, and (the) Paul movement.” And tea-party leader Matt Kibbe reportedly told a meeting of conservatives the other night, “(Establishment leaders) are trying to close the process so we can’t participate…so that upstart candidates, the ones that they tell us can never win, can’t even compete.”
It’s hard to fault the party leaders for at least trying to get control of their nomination process; it’s also understandable that they think there were too many debates last time, given the frequent crazy outbursts on stage and in the audience. But their thinking is fundamentally flawed. They’re kidding themselves if they really believe that tweaking the machinery will make much of a difference. The problem isn’t the machinery. The problem is the fuel that goes into the machinery.
Back in 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debated and battled all the way to the first week of June – yet it didn’t hurt the Democrats. That’s because their issues, themes, and ideas – their fuel, as it were – resonated with the electorate. The more they talked, the more they built a successful party brand. In 2012, the Republicans actually had a shorter primary season than Obama and Clinton four years earlier, but their discourse failed to resonate beyond the party base because it was often mean-spirited and out of the mainstream.
Indeed, the GOP was damaged last time not by the number of debates, but by the content of the debates. When you have the likes of Michele Bachmann insisting, without a shred of empirical evidence, that a popular inoculation causes mental retardation, or when you have a supposed front-runner like Rick Perry suffering a brain freeze (“I would do away with Education, uh, the, uh, Commerce, and, let’s see, I can’t, the third one, I can’t, sorry, oops”), or when you have space taken up by the likes of Herman Cain, who made Sarah Palin look like a Cambridge scholar…clearly, what’s really needed is a better candidate field and better quality discourse that connects with the American middle.
Even the GOP report concedes that the party is “driving around in circles on an ideological cul de sac.” So true. A better-built car won’t make a bit of difference if there’s still sand in the tank.
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