What is wrong with the Republican Party?
The GOP doesn’t hold one statewide office in New York and retains a bare majority in the state Senate due principally to an “own goal” intentionally scored by the sitting Democratic governor against his own party.
Furthermore, the Republican State Committee, under its long-time chairman, Edward Cox, can’t seem to recognize or seize the several golden opportunities presented to it.
Nationally, Republicans have been making quite a spectacle of themselves — apparently because they remain almost completely unglued by the election and then re-election of Barack Obama fully seven years after the initial fact.
Certainly, Republicans in Washington can’t stand their own prosperity. They — or at least those with the same ideological inclinations — have controlled the U.S. Supreme Court since the first Bush administration. Republicans have firmly held the majority in the House of Representatives for the last half decade and captured control of the Senate in 2014. Thirty-two of the 50 states have a Republican governor, and Republicans occupy 70 percent of the seats in state legislatures nationwide.
All should be well for them, right? Why isn’t it?
Ends vs. the Middle
In our durable two-party system, each needs to construct internal coalitions large and cohesive enough to win elections and then govern effectively. This is the long-term historical norm and has tended to make the parties less ideologically “pure,” while forcing them toward the political center — albeit in the end marginally to one side of it or the other.
This is why, contrary to conventional belief or bluster, the United States has no truly “liberal” major party. Seen objectively against the backdrop of political parties in representative democracies around the world, the Democratic Party is essentially a moderate or centrist party, using limited and mostly peripheral concessions to its liberal wing to round out its coalition. The latter stay, often unenthusiastically, mainly because they have no other place to go within the system.
Similarly, Republicans customarily have sought to capture their portion of the larger political center, in turn effectively ostracizing the most radically conservative parts of the American political spectrum.
However, when Obama and the Democrats swept the presidency and Congress in 2008, the broad centrist coalition that produced it appeared at first to be a durable one.
Feeling no longer competitive, Republicans sought to build a new working coalition by looking to those not then a part of that general move toward Obama and by embracing some previously marginalized constituencies.
This is where ideas long discredited by the vast majority of Americans, but which have lived for a long time on the hard right fringe of the American political spectrum, began to gain some currency.
“You lie,” the “birther” movement, nativist rhetoric, even overt racism were willingly granted a rare conspicuous entry into the national political dialogue.
Indeed, in combining parts of the reactionary right with its more conventional conservative and libertarian strands, Republicans quickly succeeded in remaking themselves into a force. At the same time, though, they opened a Pandora’s box that is roiling the party and making its recaptured relevance look increasingly fragile.
On the one hand, that reactionary right is demanding ideological “purity” and claiming its own peculiar form of direct philosophical lineage to the Constitution’s framers and the nation’s founders.
On the other, the more pragmatic and politically seasoned conservative, libertarian-leaning, business-sector-oriented party members are becoming increasingly frustrated with the unproductive histrionics of their putative junior partners, despite the recent election victories this fraught alliance has produced.
For the Grand Old Party to remain competitive and for its internally warring elements to continue to gain traction, each believes it needs the other — and each increasingly hates the idea. Each is trying to leverage the other in a desperate effort to reign supreme, an effort that is showing signs of becoming suicidal.
Which brings us back to New York’s Republican Party.
Cox, the son-in-law of the late former President Nixon, comes from a more centrist Republican tradition typical of the party in New York. He should be drawing on that legacy to both rebuild the statewide organization and show the way to a more sustainable and constructive majority nationally. That would be a more fruitful option to “laying low” or conceding to the contradictory dysfunction within the national party, as he and his state committee seem to be doing now.
Among other things, Andrew Cuomo’s decision not to use the powerful tools at his disposal — the state’s evolving demography and legislative redistricting among them — to secure a sustainable majority in the Senate for the Democrats has left the door open.
The radicalized version of the Republican Party sought by its insurgents in Washington is a historical aberration doomed to failure.
Cox and those Republicans holding office or seeking it in New York need to rediscover the states party’s pragmatic, conservatively progressive roots, and — with a nod toward the legacy of giants like (Teddy) Roosevelt and Dewey — leverage these opportunities.
A strong state Republican Party built on sustainable and collaborative mainstream principles would present a more credible statewide alternative, and then have the capacity to lead the national party out of its self-destructing conundrum.
John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to The Daily Gazette.