Sunday, May 03, 2009

Is the GOP like GM?

In the days following the defection of Senator Arlen Specter to the Democrats, I've been thinking about what to write about in the wake of all of this. As a moderate Republican, I can say that it has been a hard week and more than once, I've thought of just ending my relationship with this party.

As I thought about and read through all the articles by moderate Republicans like Christine Todd Whitman and Olympia Snowe, as well as conservatives like Peggy Noonan, and their calls for change, a thought started to emerge:

I've seen this all before.

Having grown up in Flint, Michigan a company town if there ever was one, the son of two autoworkers, I am begginning to see an odd similarity between the Grand Old Party and the company that put Flint and Michigan on the map: General Motors. What I am seeing is two well known brands that are stuck in the past, back when they were kings of their respective worlds. Both have been unable and unwilling to change, thinking that the only thing necessary are small course corrections or betting the house on one magic bullet that would make everything fine.

But in both cases, the refusal to make drastic and needed changes have placed them at a dangerous point where their survival is at stake.

Let's unpack this.

The heyday for General Motors was in the 1950s and 60s. Most people bought American cars, with foreign automakers only making a small slice of the American auto market. Americans wanted their cars big and that's what GM and the other Big Three gave. Gas was cheap and people wanted more and more and Detroit as only too happy to give it to them.

Likewise, the heyday for the GOP was probably around 1980. Ronald Reagan has won the presidency and the GOP had ended the Liberal Era which started with FDR in 1933. The Republicans started this era with new ideas and tried to change the way government worked. The public rewarded them with wins in 1984 and 1988 and even though they lost the White House in 1992, they won Congress two years later and held it for over a decade. Times were good for the Republican Party.

But like the auto industry, things would change. In the 1970s, environmental standards and two oil shocks caught Detroit flatfooted. When the public went looking for efficient cars, they couldn't find them among the Big Three, so they started looking at Honda and Toyota.

External problems were not the only issue to affect the General and the other domestics. People started complaining that American cars were having more and more issues, while the Japanese cars were better built. Over time, millions of Americans left their Chevys and Fords and started driving Datsuns and Hondas.

When GM saw the problem, they decided to make some changes, but they were insubstantial. A badge engineering here, a consolidation there, but it did nothing to stem the tide of consumers buying Camrys and Civics. Maybe part of the reason there was never any big change is because outside their windows in Detroit, everyone drove a GM, Ford or Chrysler car. The never bothered to look at what was going on in other parts of America, like the coasts, where everyone seemed to be driving a Japanese car.

For the GOP, trouble started to occur towards the end of the Clinton years. The party was still strong, but not as strong as it should be. It's focus on the whole Lewinsky affair had weakened it. Change was needed and it was offered in 2000 by two presidential candidates: John McCain and George W. Bush. The change McCain was offering was way too radical for the party leaders: it offered the promise of growing the party, but at the risk of challenging those who were in power. So, they went for Bush who offered change, but was more incremental and not as messy. There was no need for a McCain style root canal, just a little filling. Things were starting to look bad, but with Bush in the White House, especaially after 9/11, it seemed like things were going well.

During the late 90s, GM and the other Big Three decided to place their bets on trucks and SUVs. They let their passenger cars by the wayside. It seemed like a good strategy- until gas went to $4/gallon only to be followed by the credit crisis.

In some ways, the GOP decided to place their bets on wooing evangelical voters using wedge issues like gay marriage. It worked well, until the war in Iraq and the financial meltdown took its toll.

But despite all this, the GOP seems to think everything is fine. It can still use the old strategy of pleasing the base even as moderates and the young leave the party in droves.

At present, General Motors is now finally making the some of the hard changes it needed to make, but selling or shuttering underperforming divisions. Will it be enough? Is it too late? Only time will tell. GM wasted a lot of years not finding out what the people really wanted and it will take a while for the buying public to want to buy a GM car after a generation of buying Japanese cars.

Republicans have not yet hit that point where they can no longer hide yet. Maybe that will come in 2010 or 2012. But for now, people think things are okay, if they just make a few tweaks here and there and wait for Obama and the Dems to slip up, things will be fine. They aren't bothering to see what the people want and how to best achieve those goals.

As for me, will I stay in the GOP as moderates are shown the door?

I can only answer this way: I, the son of two GM workers, now own a Toyota Prius. That doesn't mean I'm leaving tomorrow: I still have some fight left in me to try to make change within the GOP. But that isn't a constant.

The leadership of the GOP should take notice, but I doubt they will.

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