Friday, January 27, 2012

GOP Adrift

Why the GOP is not looking so hot right now.

The GOP isn’t looking so hot right now. The party is leaderless, directionless, and unable to get out of its funk. The nominees are either perceived as fake or crazy and their voting constituency is uninspired. There are three recent events that have been playing in the media that illustrate this decline well. The invocation of Reagan in argumentation, the recent Keystone XL pipeline, and the seeming split between GOP elites and the base.

The first issue is the use of Reagan in Republican rhetoric. Reagan’s policies aside, he has been used as if he were a perfect presidential example; the pinnacle of Republicanism. This is patently untrue--the Gipper had some modern conservative ideas but was largely a middling president who went back and forth working with Congress to raise taxes and expand the government for the majority of his time in office. His personality was winning, and his policies were hardly radical. In fact, the Republican party has moved far to the right since Reagan was president. It has moved far more drastically than the Democrats have moved left and what Republicans consider the middle used to be on the fringe in Reagan’s day. Reagan and other moderate Republicans at the time have all espoused this at one time or another and it is a well-documented fact. So appealing to Reagan in the Republican primaries has become akin to calling on Paul Bunyan--a larger than life character with dubious basis in fact.

This is indicative of a disconnect in the rhetoric of the party these days. This sort of Reagan brandishing has come to be an empty symbol. What substance can such an invocation have when the candidates (and the voters for that matter) aren’t sure what that means? The answer is none.

The second issue is the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama was required--as part of the payroll tax extension deal--to make a decision as to whether or approve the construction of the proposed pipeline that would extend from Louisiana to Canada and go through the critically important Ogallala Aquifer. The Republican line is that Obama has shown himself to be a partisan president that bends to the will of environmental special interests at the cost of American jobs and energy independence.

Maybe the president is but Keystone XL does not prove that. The facts seem to suggest something far different. Keystone XL would have been a union construction--a core voter group for Democrats. Obama, in voting to approve or deny a permit was already in the hot seat with two core voting blocs of the Democratic party. Strike one.

Obama eventually went the route of the environmentalists. But that’s not necessarily true either. The process for approval is long and often tedious; sometimes redundant. In a local project with minimal environmental impact--say clearing a few acres of forest with no known endangered species--the process of determining whether and environmental impact statement (EIS) is even needed can take up to six months. On a transnational pipeline that process can take years--like three at least (the amount of time that Keystone has been in the works).

Certainly the Obama administration was wary of its previous attempt at fast-tracking with the Solyndra scandal so it is understandable that Obama was more cautious about an enormous pipeline that goes through the middle of one of the most susceptible aquifers in the nation. Strike two.

The project isn’t dead either, it simply needs to continue with the process it was on before Congress made it a rider amendment to a completely unrelated bill. In fact, if the process continues as needed it is likely to be approved and construction will start sometime in the near future. No jobs were killed through Obama’s refusal of approval; merely a postponement. In fact, if Obama had fast-tracked it the project would have likely ended up in court and be litigated on for a minimum of ten years while multiple environmental groups file suits to halt action. It is unlikely that under any circumstances other than the regular process the project will enter the construction phase. Strike three.

What’s important about this is a clear misunderstanding of how the Federal government works. It is also slightly unnerving to think that the presidential contenders think it is ok to assert executive authority over the democratic (as in government not party) process.

The GOP has managed somehow to lose on every bit of this issue starting at the payroll tax and extending to the fiery rhetoric that wholly disregards the American system of governance as well as managing to be woefully uninformed about political realities. It’s more directionless anger that doesn’t manage to quite make sense.

The third point is the seeming split between the Republican elites and the base. This has been used a lot by Fox News in particular to discredit Romney. First of all I think it’s clear that the Republican elite is not uniform in any way--in fact it seems to be just as split on its options as the base. Fox News clearly has many conservative pundits with extraordinary influence--party elites who run in all the tight circles and drink in smoke filled back rooms. And people like George Will, John Sununu, Rich Lowry, and Anne Coulter all have very different views about who should be doing what and where the party should be going. The elite seem just as fractious as the base.

Yet at the same time many of these influential figures have accused the GOP ‘elites’ as being out of touch somehow. The GOP elites have become a scapegoat for why Romney is doing so well and the Tea Party isn’t getting more of a say. But that just can’t be true. At the end of the day, the primaries rely on the masses instead of the elites for a decision. It appears that the base is selecting Romney just as much as the ‘elites’ are.

Perhaps it is more attributable to the sense of feeling cheated that seems to be emanating from the party. Republicans consistently say that their votes for Romney are really votes against Obama--it’s an indication that none of the candidates are right and no one in the party is happy with that. The elites become the other on which to pin the troubles of the party itself.

And therein lies the problem. No one in the party is taking responsibility for its state. The candidates invoke a mythical bygone era, the political reality is distorted, and the vision of the future is lamely unrealized as someone else’s job. The party needs to get itself together if it is to win elections or get its policies passed. The Republican party is adrift without a rudder, and everyone seems to be paddling in a different direction. If the GOP wants a victory this fall it needs a compass to find its bearings, a steady drummer, and an effective captain to find favorable winds.