Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner is one of the most brilliant conservative commentators around, and his column today, “GOP can learn from Democrats on advancing their agenda,” is a worthy read. However, while I agree that Republicans can learn, I differ with his apparent conclusion that the GOP needs to learn how to make strategic compromises that allow incremental gains in service of long-term ideological goals.
That is how Klein summarizes Democrats’ history from 2006 to the present. They rode anti-war sentiment to electoral success, then tamed the absolutist demands of the far-left in order to establish their credibility in time for 2008. Barack Obama, likewise, tapped into the enthusiasm of the far left but held back on the more extreme versions of health care reform and “threaded the needle,” losing Congress but winning re-election.
The lesson Klein seems to impart is that the Tea Party ought to learn from Democrats–and from the defeat over defunding Obamacare–to accept compromises rather than seeking confrontations, to moderate its demands in service of winning elections that make its long-term goals more likely. I think that is a reasonable but ultimately mistaken prescription for the GOP, based on a subtle misreading of recent political history.
First of all, despite media portrayals, the Tea Party has proved more conciliatory than confrontational since arriving in Washington. It accepted its exclusion from the House leadership in 2011. After a fight, it accepted the Budget Control Act, the “fiscal cliff” deal, and the deal to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. It has allowed many other continuing resolutions and debt limit hikes to pass without making a fuss.
Second, while the Democrats did tame some of the demands of the the anti-war movement, they have moved decidedly to the left since 2004. The netroots took over the Democratic National Committee. Barack Obama’s utopian, far-left movement dislodged Hillary Clinton’s nominally centrist, party-establishment campaign. And the Blue Dog Democrats that were the key to victory in the 2006 midterms were abandoned in 2010.
Third, the mainstream media have toxified new Republican leaders in a way they never do with Democrats. Objectively speaking, there is no way that a man who attended–and gave large sums of money to–a racist church should have been allowed near the presidency. But Democrats have covered up for Obama, and for much of the party’s base (i.e. the Occupy movement), while making the Tea Party abhorrent to GOP insiders.
In essence, the difference is this: the Tea Party has not taken over, or even found representation in, the GOP leadership, the way the anti-war base did among Democrats. That is partly because the establishment has resisted relinquishing control: the party’s “autopsy” earlier this year brushed conservatives aside. It is also, however (as I have written before), because the Tea Party has not yet found the leaders to take it forward.
Ross Douthat and Ace of Spades, coming from rather different perspectives, seem to agree that leadership is the central problem (though Douthat wants to “purge” the Tea Party’s “baggage” and Ace wants the GOP to “embrace” the base). It is a tough process: the Democrats’ internal transition nearly foundered over the superdelegate controversy in 2008. But it is not impossible, and presents a new opportunity to rebuild.