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Why the GOP Needs—But Won’t Get—Its Own Bill Clinton

As the long-time policy director for the once-influential (if now-defunct) Democratic Leadership Council, I have often been asked whether a clear defeat of Mitt Romney on November 6, of the sort we saw yesterday, might drive Republicans to create a similar party-changing “centrist” organization. 

The short answer is “no.” (And I’m tempted to say the long answer is “Hell, no!”) Yes, like the Democrats of the 1980s, the GOP has just gone through a string of brutal national elections. Yes, the GOP is looking down the barrel of a large and growing demographic disadvantage. The Republicans undoubtedly have the occasion to reconsider their direction. But that doesn't mean they're actually going to do so. 

Perhaps the simplest way to explain why is to re-examine the conditions that led to the formation and rise of the DLC, and compare them to those now facing the Republican Party. 

The so-called Electoral College “lock.” When the DLC was founded in 1985, Democrats had just experienced a 525-13 wipeout in the electoral college, and had been particularly demolished in the South, the foundation of their one presidential victory in the previous five elections. Whatever their problems, polarization has given Republicans a virtually unshakable base in both popular and electoral votes. They could run a candidate in clown makeup for president—and in 2012, they might have, judging from the party's other leading primary candidates—and still win 45 percent of the vote and 150 electoral votes.

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Alienated elected officials. The DLC’s real “base” was among congressional, state and local elected officials—not just in the South, but in every competitive state and region—who feared the national party (and the interest and constituency groups that were thought to control it) were in the process of dragging them towards defeat. The dominant Republican office-holders today at every level are products of two GOP landslides—1994 and 2010—that were accompanied by an aggressive, ideologically conservative message. On that basis, there's no reason to think that any Republican revolt against the “presidential party” will be “centrist” in any tangible way. 

Regional disunity. While the southern character of the DLC was always exaggerated by its critics, it’s true it was strongest in areas of the country (the South, but also the West and growing suburbs everywhere) where Republicans were making major gains, and the perceived “paleoliberal” message of the party was not helping. The most remarkable development in the GOP during the last decade, by contrast, has been the gradual extinction of major regional differences, at least outside New England (and even there on many issues, as reflected in the remarkable unanimity of Republican congressional voting on economic and fiscal issues). In particular, Midwestern conservatives are now ideologically very close to their southern cousins on such previously Dixiefied issues as the legitimacy of unions. Pro-choice Republicans are very rare. Perhaps a DLC-style “centrist” organization might serve as a symbolic “triangulating” device in New England, but it would not represent a nationally significant party faction. 

Alternative explanations for defeat. Much of the ongoing argument between “New Democrats” and “traditional liberals” that enlivened (or depending on your point of view, enervated) Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s involved varying explanations for the party’s loss of its old majority status. Many of them, on both sides of the intraparty barricades, can be found in the classic 1989 DLC analysis of the presidential party, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck’s The Politics of Evasion. If there is such a debate in the Republican Party today, it is well-hidden (beyond a few notably non-influential party heretics like David Frum and Jon Huntsman, and ex-Republicans like Charlie Crist), or is more a matter of arguing campaign tactics. The overwhelming point of view in the GOP today is that a clearly-articulated “movement conservative” message embracing smaller government, laissez-faire economics, and cultural conservatism (there is a bit, but only a bit, of dissension on national security and immigration) is and remains a winner. “Bad candidates,” or worse yet, half-hearted conservatives, can still lose presidential elections and congressional majorities, but too much conservatism is never the problem. 

Philosophical and operational flexibility. Whatever their detractors thought of them, the old DLC Democrats thought of themselves as “pragmatists” who sought to modernize, not abandon, the progressive tradition. The most striking characteristic of today’s conservative movement, exemplified by the “constitutional conservatives” that are its rising faction, is a belief that its principles and agenda are timeless. “New ideas,” on the rare occasions they are presented, generally turn out to be old reliable proposals from elements of the Right that used to be considered extremist, from Austrian economics and cash-based health care to state sovereignty and even nullification. Indeed, the rapidly growing habit among Republican politicians of making frequent references to the Declaration of Independence (treated as of equal or superior status to the Constitution itself) reflects the belief that conservative governing principles are intrinsic to the American character and even divinely ordained. In this context, “pragmatism” is unpatriotic and perhaps sinful, and compromise is (to use the term conservative activists so often apply to any form of accommodation with Democrats or progressives) betrayal. 

DLCers used to accuse their intra-party enemies of preferring defeat to change—of waiting for that moment when external circumstances or conservative mistakes or demographics or a brilliant candidate would make it possible to win the presidency without the sort of move to the center that would make victory quicker and easier. In the end, Democrats (in no small part because of Bill Clinton) adopted much of the New Democrats’ willingness to adjust to political circumstances. They came to favor slow and steady progress towards a fairer, more diverse society, even if that meant compromise and even accommodation of the electorate’s less enlightened impulses.

Today's GOP, by contrast, still seems dedicated to all-or-nothing politics. Republicans are wedded to the belief American's public sector programs and investments (and the Supreme Court precedents that support them!) ought to be reversed with one swift blow, and they seem intent on waiting for the top-to-bottom election landslide that would allow for it. “Constitutional conservatives” profess that they will never accept the need for “modernization.” They should be taken at their word.