Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Why Moderate Republicans Matter, Revisited

Yesterday's post was primarily a response to why Ross Douthat's snarky dismissal of New England or Rockefeller Republicans was off base. Using a column by Ross' workmate at the New York Times, David Brooks, I offered that moderate Republicans are not opportunists as they are bearers of an old tradition in the GOP, one that makes the case for a civic-minded conservatism.

Today, I want to talk a bit about why moderate Republicans matter electorally using a post by Noah Millman of the blog American Scene. In that post, he opines that if we basically brush off the sterotypical New England Republican, we can basically kiss that region goodbye and kiss the chances of being a national party:

The “New Democrats” and “neoliberals” that Ross refers to were concerned with many things, from questions of policy to questions of marketing, but one of the key things they were concerned with was being competitive nationally, and particularly in the South, the region that was most dramatically trending in a Republican direction. Leading lights included Tennessee Senator Al Gore and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. The “Super-Tuesday” primary was designed for the 1988 election to insure that the nominee was acceptable to the Southern electorate (and wound up delivering Michael Dukakis: go figure). Even as they made gains in traditionally Republican-leaning regions (California favored Bush Sr. by a much narrower margin than the nation as a whole in 1988, a far cry from 1976 when the state went for Gerald Ford while the election went to Jimmy Carter), the Democrats (other than John Kerry) understood that ceding an entire section of the country was dangerous folly.

Indeed. John Kerry's strategy in 2004 to basically ignore the South didn't work out so well. Obama was careful not to do that this time and ended up winning the two crucial Southern states of Virginia and North Carolina. Other than that goofup in 2004, the Dems have still tried to be competative in the South even though it was becoming Republican. Because of that, they still have a number of Democratic House and Senate members.

But while the Dems see the South as a region to invest in, Millman thinks the GOP is not listening:

Do the Republicans see things that way today? I don’t really think so. The national party would, of course, like to keep as many votes as it can. But other than trying to hang on to the Snowes and Specters, it’s not at all clear to me that the GOP has any strategy for competing in the Northeast. The reformers who have played well to Ross – Pawlenty, most prominently, but also Jindal, and to some extent Huckabee – are all basically solid social conservatives who don’t take an especially hard ideological line on the role of government and who position themselves as pragmatic problem-solvers interested in the problems of a family of four earning $50-75,000 per year, and not just the problems of big corporations and the wealthy. Ross is right that these guys don’t add up to a faction, but I’m making a different point: guys in this mold are not going to be competitive in Maryland, in New Jersey, in Connecticut. Nor are they going to be competitive in California. And once you’ve conceded the Northeast and the West Coast, the road to either 270 electoral votes or 51 Senate seats looks mighty steep.

Nothing to disagree with here. Being that Pawlenty is my governor, I can say that even though Minnesota is a "blue" state, there are enough pockets of social conservatives, that allow for Pawlenty to be a governor in Minnesota. Louisiana is a fairly social conservative state which makes a Bobby Jindal possible. But place these two in a socially liberal area like a Massachusetts or Pennsylvania and you have a harder, if not impossible task.

While some have said otherwise, Democrats know that they need the South to win. All one has to do is look at those electoral votes: Virginia has 13, North Carolina 15, Georgia 15, and Florida 27. While some might see this as a backwater region of the country, to a Democratic strategist, this is electoral college heaven.

But the Dems know that they can't win in the South by running as if the candidate lived in San Francisco or Manhattan. They have to tailor the Democratic message to that region; supporting gun rights here, and the death penalty there. To win a presidential or congressional election, such attention to detail must be met or else you lose.

Republicans dismiss the Northeast at its peril, missing a ton of electoral votes: Pennsylvania with 21, New York with 31, New Jersey with 15 and Massachusetts with 12.

Douthat is a great thinker and has some wonderful policy ideas for the GOP. And he has some good insight into social conservatism. However, his weakness is to not see how social conservatism has turned off voters in many parts of the country, like the Northeast and the West Coast. If the GOP follows some of his ideas, that might result in a stronger regional party, but it won't make the Repblicans a national party.

In some case, a little hertodoxy is in order. We need to be able to run candidates that tend to be pro-choice and pro-gay marriage in areas where this issue matters. (I would love to run such candidates everywhere, but I am talking about being strategic at this point, not morality.)

In the end, while principles matter, getting the most votes also matters as well. The Green Party can run on principles, but you don't see them winning major elections.

If Douthat wants the GOP to be a winning party, he needs the moderates to push the GOP over the top. A little heterodoxy can go a long way.

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