What Republicans Need or Don’t Need

Posted on December 5, 2013 by

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Mike Murphy has written a provocative editorial imploring the Republican Party to seize the moment.  He is to be applauded for encouraging the party to act, but his proposal represents well the current debate among Republicans regarding how to move forward. For Murphy it is about dispatching the old, uncomfortable positions on social issues like gay marriage and on immigration reform, and moving forward with fresh new ideas to get the economy growing, fix public education, and provide an alternative to Obamacare.  He referred to the government shutdown as “ill-advised,” and noted that the party has to face up to the “demographic reality” of a changing electorate.  More specifically, he means the party needs to find a way to appeal to Hispanic voters.  He also goes on to propose some significant ideas related to the mechanics of the next presidential election which I will not address here.

Murphy’s piece gives us a chance to view the brewing debate within the Republican Party.  Does the party want to pursue a strategy that solidifies its distinctiveness or move the party to the middle, ostensibly to appeal to a broader base of voters?  Murphy appears to propose the latter.  This debate is not new for the party as it has always been the minority in terms of pure numbers.  The question gets at the very heart of the democratic process, however.  In today’s America, clear distinctions on political philosophy and on individual issues are often seen as too divisive.  Harry Reid and his troop just did away with one of the Senate’s grandest traditions, the filibuster, just eliminate honest opposition.  Democracy assumes that political debates are valuable enterprises that allow the governing system to represent all viewpoints and come to a conclusion that is best for the country.  We seem to forget that honest opposition is not a bad thing.  When the Republican Party began, it was a minority party that presented a very controversial position on the expansion of slavery.  Thankfully, the Democratic Party of that era did not have the audacity to limit debate and change the very machinery of government.  But I will stop this line of thinking before we get too far afield.  While this may seem extreme, I would liken Mr. Murphy’s proposal to Harry Reid’s nuclear option.  Obviously, Murphy’s does not tamper with age old processes that ought to be maintained, so there are differences.  But it is similar in that it buys into the philosophy that sharp distinctions are divisive and as a result, somehow unacceptable in American politics.  President Obama’s response to Reid’s action concurs, “A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to re-fight the result of an election is not normal, and for the sake of future generations, we can’t let it become normal.” Actually, Mr. President, it is normal.  It is called political discourse in this country and I am quite convinced if Mr. Obama was still a senator and had been on the receiving end of this action, he would not see it quite the same way.

It is interesting to me that Murphy referenced Ronald Reagan in this editorial.  He noted that Reagan launched his campaign in Detroit, and he suggested that the Republican Party hold its national convention there 2016.  The merits of this idea notwithstanding, raising the specter of Reagan is not helping Murphy’s case.  Reagan did not pander to the middle.  He made it very clear how he differed from Jimmy Carter.  A great example to evidence this is his approach to the Cold War.  He took an aggressive stance toward the Soviet Union, rebuilt the U.S. military, upped the rhetorical battle by referring to the USSR as the “evil empire,” and strengthened our ties with western allies.   Plenty of Democrats (and some Republicans) howled at this divisive approach and feared it would engender World War III.  As it turned out, it precipitated the end of the Cold War.  Reagan’s “peace through strength” approach pushed the Soviets to the brink of destruction.  The decades of socialistic economic policy were beginning to take their toll and the Soviet economy could not produce both guns and butter.  The exigency of the moment allowed a reform minded leader like Mikhail Gorbachev to begin to foster change.  As that occurred, the Soviet empire imploded.

Why do I take this walk down memory lane?  Mostly because I am an historian and believe that history provides us with many applicable solutions to our current problems.  More to the current point, however, I look back for two reasons.   First, Reagan produced the fresh new ideas that Murphy calls for today without denigrating the social issues that are so important to the Republican base.  No one would accuse Reagan of trying to soften the distinctive elements of the party in an attempt to appeal to more voters.  I am convinced that attempts to move to the middle to “appeal to more voters” are counterproductive.  Clarity between positions is the essence of the American political system and gives voters a true choice.  Second, Reagan’s example reminds us about an option that Murphy did not talk about and that Republicans ought to be seizing.  Reagan’s focus on the debacle that was Carter’s foreign policy with regard to the Cold War was an essential difference that appealed to American voters.  Republicans in Congress and any Republican candidate for president ought to make foreign policy a key element in their political strategy.  Obama’s record in foreign affairs is abysmal, by anyone’s standard.  One need only to mention Benghazi, the US response to the Arab Spring, Syria, or the more recent nuclear agreement with Iran that allows her to continue to enrich uranium and any conscious American knows that this president has weakened our nation’s security.  A key area that Republicans can focus on for “fresh” ideas is surely in the area of foreign affairs.

Mike Murphy’s editorial raises a host of other issues that merit further discussion.  I have only scratched the surface in this blog, but I would hope the party would not allow desperation to cause it to neglect its base and run to the middle.  It doesn’t work and Americans seldom love panderers.  Reagan was an ideologue and identified his party as very distinct from the opposition.  Oh, to have another ideologue.

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