Kevin Williamson, my esteemed fellow deputy managing editor and occasional drinking buddy (coffee for him, ginger ale for me), thinks today’s Republicans are “the Stupid Party.” He presents as evidence the following: (1) Some of the GOP’s positions are not those of Kevin Williamson; (2) parts of Rep. John Boehner’s website have not been updated in a year and a half; and, most seriously, (3) the Republicans’ rhetoric is chiefly concerned with criticizing the Democrats, rather than with proposing solutions.
Now, first of all, Kevin also believes that abortion is an “absolute evil” (as he mentions in passing at the start), so if the Democrats are strongly in favor of it while the Republicans are opposed, you’d think that would decide the case right there. After all, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to support a third party. Yet Kevin isn’t sure the Republicans “deserve” to win unless they also start propounding innovative policy proposals. One gets the impression that if Jessica Alba were Kevin’s girlfriend, he would dump her because she couldn’t cook.
I also am not sure I agree with the assertion that increasing domestic oil and gas production is “stupid.” After all, as Kevin says, “If Americans stop buying as much oil, the Saudis are in a world of hurt.” Since the Saudis do not always have our best interests in mind, isn’t that exactly what we should be doing? The same goes for trying to win over the populace of countries that would otherwise be terrorist havens.
Setting aside our specific disagreements, though, Kevin’s main point seems to be that it’s embarrassing to support a party whose platform appears to have been written in two minutes on an iPhone using the AutoRant app. Republican leaders, he suggests, should check out some of the sharp analysis that’s being done at think tanks and in journals and websites like ours, and start talking it up in order to look intelligent and gain indie-voter cred. Instead, they sit around watching the Democrats’ disaster movie and making snide remarks like the guys in Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Well, what’s wrong with that? It’s just another example of our old conservative friend, the division of labor. The job of a political party (at least, one that has any aspirations to success) is to unite disparate factions and win power. Coming up with ideas is not their job; in fact, in most cases it’s the direct opposite of their job. Being “smart” — in the sense of subtle, fair-minded, perspicacious, and alert to nuance — is actually a handicap for a political party, like being honest is for a lawyer. A smart party is an unsuccessful one. (Do you remember the Democrats’ detailed policy platform in 2008? It was two words long — three if you count “and.”)
Suppose that “the Republican party” (whatever that might mean in a non-presidential year) “adopted” (ditto) an innovative, flexible, market-oriented policy on health-care reform. What would that accomplish, except to gratuitously shift the party from offense to defense? In the 500 or so congressional and statewide races being contested this year, some GOP candidates will need to appeal mainly to elderly voters, whose biggest concern will be Medicare cuts. Others will be chasing the young voters who supposedly are the party’s future; they will worry most about the individual mandate and massive future debt. Other candidates will need to appeal to union members or families or rural residents. Why restrict their room for maneuver by adopting a single nationwide approach?
Every policy choice involves trade-offs, which create winners and losers. In this year’s elections, Democrats across the country will be saddled with the unpopular choices that their leaders and President Obama have made, while Republicans are free to advocate whatever they wish — or to talk in sonorous but empty phrases that will appeal to the vast majority of citizens who are fortunate enough not to be obsessed with politics. Why forfeit this advantage just so we can hold our heads up during happy hour at the Columnists’ Club? Being the Not Obama party will work just as well for Republicans in 2010 as being the Not Bush party did for Democrats in 2008.
Moreover, isn’t it a bit naïve to suggest that campaign rhetoric has anything to do with what laws and regulations will actually be enacted? Why is it so important for a candidate to say all the right things, when every carefully crafted scheme he devises will be shoved through the sausage grinder once he takes office? Obama may have been more cynical than most in reeling off implausible promises, and more secure in the knowledge that nobody but a few right-wing soreheads would call him on it. But even if you’re as sincere as Linus’s pumpkin patch, you’ll never get your elegant plans through Congress without huge compromises. When journalists (and Kevin is far from the only one) demand that Republicans “craft an agenda” or “go beyond simply being the Party of No,” what they’re really demanding is that they lie to the public (by promising things they know will never happen) in order to give journalists something to write about.
Mario Cuomo said that “you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” Most often the poetry resembles song lyrics from Barney the Purple Dinosaur, while the prose is like the instruction manual for a combine harvester translated from Japanese to English by a Pakistani. They’re two different kinds of narrative, intended for different audiences, and mingling them not only would serve no purpose but would be counterproductive. Going on about clever fixes and fresh ideas might draw the support of a few standoffish voters, like David Brooks and his fellow members of “the educated class,” but it would bore, if not alienate, a good many others. That’s why keeping campaign rhetoric simple and vague (“stupid,” if you insist) is the best way to win elections — which is, after all, the job of a political party. And that’s pretty smart.
– Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.