At the recent Republican Governors' Conference we saw the beginnings of a debate within the Republican Party as to the best course to take to get back into power. (See: New York Times: Among Republicans, a Debate Over the Party's Road Map Back to Power)
As expected, this debate had everything to do with what works, and nothing to do with what is right. The question being asked is not, "What direction should the country go in?" but "What options on the political smorgasbord will get us a majority of the votes?"
I say that this is "as expected" because it is the way it must be. In 2000 and 2002, the Democratic Party, serving as the minority in all branches of government, asked itself the same question. Then, like now, the question was not answered by looking at "what is right" but at "what works."
One of the theories that the Democrats put forth was that the party needed to become more friendly to people of faith. Its apparent "anti-religion" stance was turning off too many voters – a majority of whom not only believed in God but believe that a religious foundation was necessary for good social policy. In a country where a majority of the voters will not vote for a person of faith, it is absurd for a party to put forth candidates that did not openly assert (whether it was true or not) that they are people of faith.
Indeed, one of the rising stars of that debate was Illinois legislator Barak Obama – somebody who typified the new faith-friendly Democratic party.
And it did work. The Democrats are now back in power.
For all practical purposes, 2002 was the year that secular America ended. It is no longer possible to argue for a policy on the basis of separation of church and state, because the idea of separation of church and state no longer has any political value. The Republican Party gave up that principle decades ago; and the Democratic Party surrendered that issue in the early part of this century as a part of its plan to get back in power.
The success of that decision means that it has now been set in concrete, and will remain an important part of the campaign landscape unless and until a movement comes along that changes the public mind on this issue. Until a majority of the voters are willing to vote for secular principles, it would be political suicide for any politician to endorse those principles.
So, as the Republican Party begins the task of re-inventing itself into a majority party, it is time to ask whether that new majority will adopt policies that are actually right, or are they going to go with "wrong but popular"?
We have a voice in that decision, because we help to determine what our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and co-club members vote for and against. We get to have an influence on what they will demand from the next Republican majority.
For example, in an article on this subject in the New York Times (See: NYT: Among Republicans, a Debate Over the Road Map Back to Power.)
One of the alternatives being discussed in this debate was reported as:
Some called for keeping focused on social issues. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who praised Ms. Palin's 'unashamed embrace of bedrock conservative principles' and said she was 'just getting started,' pointed to the success of ballot measures opposing same-sex marriage to show the continued potency of the such issues. 'The defense-of-marriage initiative that voters supported in California, Arizona and here in Florida ought to be proof enough that conservative values still matter to the American people and are worthy of our party’s attention,' he said.
This is an option – but it is an option that is much like the Democratic Party’s embrace of segregation and even its refusal to speak up against lynching in the 1930s. The Democratic Party of that era could have well argued (and did argue) that these segregationist values still matter to the American people. However, that did not make them right.
The Democratic Party did not give up these policies until they ceased to matter to the American people (or, more accurately, until the American people were convinced through civil-rights marches and similar actions) to support true equality. When it became more politically useful to support civil rights over segregation, the Democratic Party shifted from being a party of segregation to a party of civil rights.
As I said, we have a choice in the direction that the Republican Party will take in its struggle to return to power. That choice comes from the influence that we have over what others in our community find acceptable. The fact that the measures spoken about above – in California, Arizona, and Florida – passed, this means that they are an acceptable part of the Republican Party’s roadmap back to power. To the degree that we can reverse this trend, to that degree these forms of segregation, discrimination, and bigotry will not find a home in either party’s roadmap to victory.
There is also no doubt that Palin's nomination as the vice-Presidential candidate energized the Republican base. It brought in millions of dollars in contributions and millions of volunteer labor-hours into not only the Presidential campaign, but the Republican campaign. It would be foolish for us to deny the fact that these contributions did not have a spill-over effect into other Republican projects.
Palin – or someone like her (someone who can at least answer questions without appearing as a complete idiot) – will be a part of the Republican roadmap unless and until we continue to make it clear that this is not an option. We have to make this an ineffective route to political power if we are to convince the Republicans that this is territory best avoided, rather than best driven through, on their way back to power.
There are things that the Republicans get right – options for them to put into their roadmap back to power that it would benefit all of us for them to include. The Republican distrust of government is not without merit. A great many of the regulations that we face are written by special interest groups to benefit them at our expense. A great deal of our tax money is wasted. The government ought to practice fiscal responsibility, and it would serve the Republican Party to become champions of that particular cause in fact, rather than simply using it as a rhetorical sound bite that they preach without having any interest in practicing.
One group that is going to have a lot to say about the direction that the Republican Party will take to get back into power are those people whose votes are available – those who are willing to say, "Okay, Republicans, what are you willing to offer me in exchange for my vote?" It would make no sense for the Republican to try to change anything that would appeal to those who vote Democratic no matter what. It only makes sense for the Republicans to ask after the interests and concerns of those who might vote Republican.
For those who fit this mold (and I am one of them), this includes using the opportunity to tell the Democratic Party what they are doing wrong, and what they should change if they want to "keep my vote".
It is an opportunity for those who are not being well served or well represented by either partner to have their say. It is an opportunity well worth keeping in mind.