Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Off Center

Ross Douthat laments the loss of the “principled center” in the Republican Party.

[T]he Republican Party needs its own version of the neoliberals and New Democrats — reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, who helped the Democratic Party recover from the Reagan era, instead of just surviving it.

Hart, Clinton and their peers were critical of their own side’s orthodoxies, but you couldn’t imagine them jumping ship to join the Republicans. They were deeply rooted in liberal politics, but they had definite ideas for how the Democratic Party could learn from its mistakes, and from its opponents, in order to further liberalism’s deeper goals.

No equivalent faction — rooted in conservatism, but eager for innovation — exists in the Republican Party today. Maybe something like it can grow out of the listening tour that various Republican power players are embarking on this month. Maybe it can bubble up outside the Beltway — from swing-state governors like Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, or reformists in deep-red states, like the much-touted Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Utah’s Jon Huntsman. But to succeed, such a faction will have to represent something legitimately new in right-of-center politics. It can’t sound like Rush Limbaugh — but it can’t sound like Arlen Specter either.

That’s a noble sentiment and a good idea, but Mr. Douthat is leaving out one small tidbit of news: the GOP has been in the hands of the likes of Rush Limbaugh since 1994: Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, and… whatsisname, the former governor of Texas… you know…. oh, yeah, George W. Bush and his posse of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. It’s not like there’s been a center to the Republican Party since then; even the nomination of the late Jack Kemp as the VP candidate in 1996 was greeted with grumbles from the right wing. Since then, the GOP has been like a washing machine in spin cycle with an unbalanced load, clunking and thunking its way across the laundry room because one side of it has a big heavy wet blanket pulling it off center.

I’ll give credit to Mr. Douthat for trying to convince the Republicans to move to the center and look for new ideas. But if the recent activities of the leadership are any guide — dumping legislative staff in favor of press aides; Mitt Romney, Eric Cantor, and Jeb Bush holding high-profile meetings in pizza parlors to fish for “new ideas” such as more tax cuts for the rich — it might be a good idea to remember that in order to have a center, you have to have more than just one side.