The Agenda

The Problem is More Cowardice than Donorism

Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru have critical takes on the findings of the Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project. Both observe that while the GOP has failed to craft an economic policy message that is compelling to middle-income voters, the report focuses almost exclusively on the need to embrace comprehensive immigration reform and a bigger tent on social issues. Ross concludes as follows:

A party elite can rebel against its own base successfully, but only if there’s a bigger base waiting to be built. A G.O.P. that moves to the center on social and economic issues simultaneously might achieve that kind of expansion. But jettisoning cultural conservatives in order to protect an unpopular economic agenda is just as likely to have the opposite effect — losing more in disaffection than it gains through outreach, and consigning G.O.P. elites to exactly the kind of purer-but-smaller, permanent-minority fate that their revolt is intended to escape.

Though I think Ross and Ramesh are right about the flaws and limitations of the Growth and Opportunity Project’s report, the deeper problem, as I think both of them would agree, is that a broader policy shift can’t be initiated by the Republican National Committee. Rather, that is the job of elected officials and candidates and, to a lesser extent, policy thinkers.

Because policy thinkers aren’t accountable to voters, they have far more freedom to identify and champion new approaches, and there has been at least some progress on this front. There is an emerging echo chamber of conservative reformers that is either growing in influence or hopelessly marginal and irrelevant, depending on whom you ask.

Yet elected officials and candidates have by and large remained extremely risk-averse on domestic policy issues, oblivious to the changing economic priorities not only of the broader electorate, but also of the Republican primary electorate. One could attribute this risk-aversion to Matt Continetti’s “double bind,” i.e., the notion that conservative Republican candidates can’t move to the center on economic issues without sparking a backlash among their core constituents. It is also possible, however, that Republican primary voters would enthusiastically embrace candidates who call for payroll tax relief for middle-income parents, if only Republican candidates were willing to make the case. 

So what we’re dealing with is not first and foremost a failure of the Republican National Committee. The best thing the RNC can do is press for a reform of campaign finance regulation, and the Growth and Opportunity Project actually did a very good job on this front, e.g.:

Recent election cycles have seen a troubling diminishment of the role of political parties and even candidates themselves in our democracy. The national and state political parties are well on their way to the intensive care unit. McCain-Feingold now makes it impossible for the national parties to use funds raised under a state’s own laws to support state and local candidates and parties in that state, and it forces them to use federal money for what are truly state and local activities. Even state parties are prohibited from spending money that is legal under state law on important grassroots activities to help state and local candidates. Although the Supreme Court thankfully has restored the First Amendment rights of many organizations, the free speech rights of political parties and federal candidates remain smothered by McCain-Feingold. Even though national and state parties are the most transparent, accountable and grassroots-oriented groups in our political system, they are the most heavily restricted by federal campaign finance law. However, outside groups — such as SuperPACs, 501(c) (4)s and 527s — use unlimited, and often unreported, amounts of the same money federal candidates and national parties are now prohibited from spending or raising. The result is an illogical system where candidates and their parties no longer have the loudest voices in campaigns or even the ability to determine the issues debated in campaigns. Outside groups now play an expanded role affecting federal races and, in some ways, overshadow state parties in primary and general elections. As a result, this environment has caused a splintered Congress with little party cohesion so that gridlock and polarization grow as the political parties lose their ability to rally their elected officeholders around a set of coherent governing policies.  [Emphasis added]

This is extremely important. Reforms to strengthen the relative position of the political parties, e.g., retaining contribution limits and disclosure rules but allowing for unlimited coordinated spending with candidates, would make for a far more competitive political system, as incumbents otherwise have intrinsic advantages in name recognition and fundraising ability that are difficult to overcome. 

In fairness, Ramesh objects to the fact that the only explicit policy recommendation the report makes is that the GOP embrace comprehensive immigration reform, which is fair enough, and Ross is talking about GOP elites and donors more broadly, with the RNC report as a manifestation of the deeper problem.

My thesis, and I recognize that I could be entirely wrong about this, is that donors might be more amenable to policy innovation than GOP elected officials and candidates, particularly if policy thinkers successfully make the case that policy innovation will contribute to political success. This openness isn’t true of all donors, obviously. But consider the sudden shift among conservative activists on SOPA. No significant donor backlash followed. After a substantial number of House Republicans backed the fiscal cliff deals, Republican donors did not abandon the party en masse. Granted, a candidate-centered system has allowed some Republican lawmakers who opposed the deal to capitalize on having done so. But in a two-party system, donors, like voters, have a limited menu of viable options. Strong parties are in a better position to reconcile clashing interests in a coherent governing agenda than individual candidates, who depend on a narrower funding base.

And so rather than lament the excessive influence of donors, we really ought to lament the weakness of the parties and the cowardice of the electeds. 

So the first step is for policy thinkers to devise alternative agendas. That process is well underway. An expanded child credit as a vehicle for payroll tax relief, tax reform as the foundation of health reform, the Arkansas approach to Medicaid expansion, phasing in Medicare competitive bidding faster than the Ryan budget, copyright and patent reform, and moving from near-term to medium-term fiscal consolidation are all modest ideas that have gained considerable support among conservative policy thinkers. There is much more thinking to be done, but this is a decent start.

The second step is for GOP elected officials — particularly those in relatively safe seats — to stop being cowards.

And the third step is to strengthen the political parties relative to outside groups by freeing them to provide the bulk of the financing for many if not most candidates. 

There is a case that the second and third steps ought to be reversed, as GOP candidates will continue to be cowards until they have the backing of a stronger party. But unfortunately the third step will be very difficult to implement, as incumbents of all parties have an interest in keeping the central party organizations weak. 

None of this is to suggest that the “donorism” problem isn’t real. I just think the cowardice problem is bigger. I suppose I should also throw in the laziness problem, but that’s an entirely different post.


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