So Whose Republican Party Is It?
One could argue that battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party was joined the same moment that John McCain conceded defeat to Barack Obama on November 2008. Since then, prominent conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have urged activists to push for a more ideologically consistent Republican Party - one that defines itself in sharp opposition to the governing Democrats holding power in Washington D.C.
The party establishment either wasn't listening closely or simply ignored signs of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Not for long. The political floodgates opened and in short order, the Republican leadership was scrambling to catch up to the tea party movement, the August town hall protests, the reemergence of Sarah Palin, and the bruising battle over the New York 23rd congressional district.
But ahead of the midterm elections and the presidential elections in 2012, the GOP needs to refashion its message and figure out who will lead it. Big questions that I put to Dan Schnur, a veteran Republican insider and now-scholar. Schnur was the national communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. He also spent five years as chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson.
These days, Schnur makes his home in the world of academia, where he splits his time between Los Angeles, where he directs the University of Southern California's Institute of Politics, and Berkeley, where he's an adjunct Instructor at the University of California Institute of Governmental Studies. We recently spoke by phone.
Q: Who's really leading the Republican Party these days?
A: As is the case for most parties in the first couple of years after they lose an election, there is no single leader. To some degree it's the leaders on Capitol Hill, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. To some degree, it's the potential presidential candidates for 2012, (Mitt) Romney and (Mike) Huckabee and so forth and to some degree it's the outside voices. It's not much of a different situation than we saw from the Democratic Party in 2005 or in the Republican Party in 1997. So there is no really one single voice at this early stage of the cycle - and there won't be one until the party picks a nominee in three years.
With one possible exception. You have Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck in the media who are fairly influential or have very large pulpits. Is the impression real or is this more a figment of the media's imagination?
These media voices are real but they shouldn't be mistaken for voices that speak from inside the political system. Rush Limbaugh had a great deal of influence not only in the Republican Party but more broadly through the eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency, but there never a serious effort for Limbaugh to seek the presidency in 1992, 1996 or 200. So these are important voices but they come from a different vantage point.
A lot's been made about the dustup over the 23rd Congressional race in New York. What lessons do you think the party will draw from that as it figures out what it wants to do and who it wants to run in the midterm elections?
I think the biggest lesson to come out of the November elections is that Republicans learned a lesson that both parties learned periodically in the past - which is that a party's base is its source of strength but that party's success is framed on its ability to reach beyond that base. So you need a balance. The difficulty in upstate New York I think was unique for a number of reasons. Number one: In midterm elections, the party nominees are not going to be chosen by committee chairman, they're going to be chosen by primary voters and number two, the Republican nominee was someone who did lean pretty far leftward, someone who probably would not have won a contested Republican primary so I'm not sure that the situation presents a real warning for 2010 but it is a helpful reminder that the party's base, while important, is not omnipotent, that there is some need for balance when the party is trying to achieve or maintain majority status.
Fair point. But the race also exposed a divide within the party with the some lining up behind Dede Scozzafava and others supporting Doug Hoffman. For a minute there, it looked like 1968 and the Democrats. Is this just a surface split or is there something deeper there?
It is a little bit deeper but that's a division that exists within both parties and exists perennially within both parties in a two party system. The split in the New York 23rd congressional district should be of some concern for Republicans but no more than Democratic concerns over the prospect of Moveon.org funding primary candidates against Democratic members of Congress who vote against healthcare reform. When you have a multiparty system, as is the case in many countries, you can afford a level of ideological purity. In a two party system, one of the perennial struggles that both Democratic and Republican face, is how to reconcile those internal differences. It's never a question that's completely resolved.
Would you say the Republican analogue to Moveon is FreedomWorks?
Not yet but maybe in a year or two.
But they did mobilize their activists with the tea parties.
I didn't mean that as a put-down. MoveOn has been doing its work for quite some time now and FreedomWorks is relatively new in terms of the role that it is playing. But you certainly can make the case that both organizations provide a helpful voice for their parties' ideological base. The danger that potentially exists for both groups face is when they're not willing to accommodate candidates or office holders who agree with them on some issues, many issues, but not all.
Do you expect Dick Armey's influence to increase as we near the midterm and then 2012 elections?
I suspect it will. You really are seeing an extraordinary increase in populist anger among the electorate at this point and in the Republican Party, those populist sentiments are voiced by former congressman Armey and his colleagues at FreedomWorks but those sentiments really do exist at the base of both parties and it's something for Democratic and Republican leaders to be concerned about because that kind of populist anti-incumbent fervor tends to take down an awful lot of office holders when it's expressed.
If the tea party crowd takes control, how do you think the electorate's likely to embrace that plank?
I don't know that that's what's going to happen. I'd argue that that the populists are neither as far right as the people at FreedomWorks or as far left as the people at MoveOn. As I said, both organizations provide a helpful voice to the ideological bases of the Republican and Democratic party, respectively. But neither party acquires or maintains a majority status just by relying on its ideological base. So as part of a Republican coalition, FreedomWorks has a very valuable role to play. If it represents the Republican Party in its entirety, then that's about as much of a problem as it would be if MoveOn represented the entire Democratic Party.
Apropos, it happens that there's now word that a group of conservative Republican leaders wants a checklist to make sure candidates adhere to core principles. Is that a good idea?
It sounds like a movement that wants its party to be more inclusive than exclusive and that is a helpful thing if you want an ideologically pure party and less helpful if you want a majority party.
OK, I had sworn that I wouldn't talk any more about Sarah Palin -
Promises are made to be broken.
Yes, they are made to be broken. The Palin phenomenon is fascinating.
What do you think it is it about her that drives the left up the wall?
I don't know. My guess is because Palin has achieved not only a political but a pop culture status and a great level of visibility - that's something that tends to infuriate her political opponents more than if she were a more traditional, conventional political figure. That said, as interesting a story as she can be, I wonder if we're not paying a little bit more attention to her in a strictly political context than is necessary. If you look back over recent American political history, running mates of defeated presidential candidates tend to be an overvalued stock. John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp Dan Quayle - one year after they and their running mates were defeated in a presidential election were all considered to be one of their parties' frontrunners for the next presidential campaign three years' hence. None of them came within shouting distance even of their parties' nomination, let alone the White House. Palin certainly maintains a great deal of visibility for all sorts of reasons but if history is any predictor, her status as the running mate of a defeated candidate does not guarantee her much at all in the 2012 election.
Let me put you on the spot. You know John McCain. Knowing what he now knows, do you think he still would have selected Palin as his No. 2?
If you watched McCain during the campaign you can tell that he was fairly surprised by what he got. If you look back at the speech in which he announced her selection as his running mate, he talked about her credentials as a reformer, as someone who was ready to take on special interests in her own state. I don't think he knew that he was getting a cultural warrior. Whether he would have picked her or not is another question and it's not one I can answer intelligently. But it's pretty clear that he ended up with a different type of candidate than the one he seemed to be expecting when he announced her selection back in August (2008.)
Let me segue to Barack Obama. His poll numbers are slipping. Two polls show him with an under-50% approval ratings. What's been his biggest mistake to date? Is it trying to do too much too soon, or picking a topic like health care which is too hard? Or is it the spending?
It's easy to second guess and it's even easier to second guess a president who takes office in a recession. But it does seem - not only by what he's saying but also by what you're hearing from some leading Democrats - is some regret that he and his party are not spending more time focusing on bottom line, basic bread and butter issues. When former President Clinton spoke to the Democratic Senate caucus a couple of weeks ago, he urged them to pass health care reform and he urged them to do that for a lot of reasons. But what was most interesting to me is he said, "Let's pass health care reform so we can turn our attention back to the economy." And polling shows that while voters are understandably concerned about health care, they're much more concerned about jobs and the prospect of economic growth. So, if they could do it all over again, I'm not sure if Obama's advisors wouldn't have more singularly - or at least primarily - focused his attention on job-related issues. But hindsight is 20-20 on all this stuff. Maybe the biggest criticism you can offer of Barack Obama: He had the bad judgment to take office in the middle of a really bad recession.
That's true. He wanted the job and he's stuck with it now. Do you think Hillary would have been a better president?
I don't know. The criticism of President Obama that seems to be taking root -and not just among conservative critics but across a broader ideological span - is the idea that he equivocates and in an effort to find compromise might not take as strong a position as people would like to see in their leader. One of Senator Clinton's attributes was her ability to display just that kind of strength. So I don't know if she would have been a better or worse president or a more or less decisive president. But my gut tells me that based on her prior political biography, that she would be projecting a public image that might be a bit more decisive.
You're now officially a student of politics. What with the internet, talk radio & cable TV - it's a non-stop bloviation fest out here. Do you think we'll ever return to what I'd like to imagine was a kinder, gentler tone in American politics? Or are we doomed to rock-em, sock-em robots for here on in?
Well, it is going to be for the foreseeable future. If nothing else, the advances in communications and technology make it a lot easier for all of us to self-select the news and information and opinion that we hear. So we tend to have our opinions reinforced much more frequently than we have them challenged. That said, one of the things that I see with my students both at USC and up at Cal is that while people of my generation tend to use these technologies to reinforce existing ideological predispositions, younger people use the same technologies to form connections, personal and as time progresses, professional and political connections, that might not otherwise exist. The example I like to point to is the coalition that has sprung up on behalf of more aggressive action in Darfur. You see committed liberals and evangelical Christians who connected through online technologies in a way that wouldn't have been available to them even five, let alone 20 years ago. So I suspect that as this generation moves into a position of political power, that you do see these technologies used more for outreach than for wall-building.
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