Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Commitment Gap: Mitt Romney and the Republican Party's crisis of values

Republicans trying to figure out what went wrong in Tuesday's election should put down their charts and graphs and visit the graveyard of the idea that they are more politically competitive if they nominate a moderate for president. They will find there a row of gravestones, each bearing the name of a candidate who was thought more likely to win because he was a pragmatist rather than a man of ideas.

The Litany of the Moderate Republican Political Dead includes Gerald Ford (lost to Carter), George Herbert Walker Bush (lost re-election to Clinton), Bob Dole (lost to Clinton), and John McCain (lost to Obama). In each case the party took the advice of those inside and outside who said they had a much better chance of winning without an "ideologue" (read: someone who is serious about ideas) on the ticket. Romney joins this list as only the most recent casualty of the crisis of values in the Republican Party.

Mid-campaign shifts of position, as we saw in Romney's general election campaign, are just symptoms of a deeper problem. The reason Republicans nominate moderates is that they don't have enough confidence in their own most deeply held beliefs—and this is not a technical problem; it is a moral problem.

Romney lost because he did two things that all technocratic pragmatists do: 1) He triangulated on fundamental moral issues and focused exclusively on what we might call "secular" issues: issues on which there is no fundamental disagreement among voters; and 2) He cast himself as a more capable administrator than his opponent.

To a moderate, an election is not about issues, it is about competence. An election is not about what the candidate thinks; it's about what he can do. Moderate pragmatists only want to talk about means, but they do not want to talk about ends. Democrats have the moral confidence to talk about both.

Republicans try to convince Americans that Republicans do agree with Americans; Democrats try to convince Americans that Americans should agree with Democrats.

This is why many Republicans emphasize economics and are squeamish about moral issues: Everyone wants a job, a higher salary, and lower inflation. These are ends about which there is no debate: The only thing at issue is the means by which these things can be brought about. But when you start arguing about whether a fetus is a human being deserving of legal protection, or whether marriage necessarily excludes a man marrying a man or a woman a woman, then all of a sudden you have crossed a line: the line between means and ends.

There is no technocratic calculus by which a moral issue can be resolved, and so it must be minimized, if not ignored altogether.

There is one issue in which these contrasting emphases can both be seen at play. Both parties have been willing to fight openly over the health care issue. But what to the Democrats is a moral issue—an issue about social justice involving fundamental human rights—is to Republicans an economic issue—one about facts and figures and technical feasibility.

The problem with pragmatism is that it isn't very useful—at least not in the political world. With the one exception of Clinton (who stands in a separate Machiavellian category altogether), Democrats don't run pragmatists; they run ideologues—people with an explicit moral agenda. Just look at this year's party conventions: The Republicans talked about who Romney was and what he could do; the Democrats talked about abortion and same sex marriage. The Republican's hid their views on controversial moral issues and lost; the Democrats put them front and center and won.

The irony is that, if you look at polls on these issues, they still slightly favor traditional marriage and the pro-life position. There is no reason for Republicans to run from them and every reason for Democrats to fear invoking them. And yet they do it anyway.

In this year's presidential race the abortion issue raised its head again and again thanks to Republican politicians who, ill-equipped to address it when asked, tripped all over themselves and lost their elections. Two seats in the United States Senate fell into Democratic hands yesterday for one reason and one reason only: the candidates were simply incapable of articulating moral issues.

The difference between the two parties is that there is a depth of moral commitment among Democratic leaders that is lacking among their Republican colleagues. The average Democratic activist will fight and die for nationalized health care, the "right" to abortion, and most of them now will spill blood over the "right" of gays to marry. Although Republicans will argue the economic feasibility of the nationalized health care, when asked about the right to life or traditional marriage you get qualifications a mile long.

Democrats go into battle with the intention to come back with their shield or on it. Republicans too often go into battle with their tails between their legs.

This was evidenced repeatedly throughout the campaign. While spokesmen for the Obama campaign championed the "pro-choice" position unapologetically, whenever a Romney spokesman was asked about the careless remarks of Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock—or on Romney's position on Roe v. Wade, they went into prevent defense. They dissimulated on the issue itself and gave all the reasons why Romney's stated position on abortion wouldn't make any practical difference. The "practical" result of this, of course, is that people begin to doubt your sincerity and question the depth of your convictions.

The obvious response on the abortion issue would have been to shoot right back and attack Obama's history of supporting partial birth abortion, a procedure in which a full-term baby is partially delivered and then, through an incision in the back of the head, has its brains sucked out. This is an easy and effective response for a person even moderately competent in basic moral discourse, but for the soulless Republican political operatives now deployed to defend their candidates, it is a form of articulation foreign to them.

Republicans have lost their moral voice. They have tried to occupy what they perceive to be the high ground of abstract economic competency, only to cede the much higher moral ground to their liberal adversaries. They have abandoned what Richard Weaver once called the "Office of Assertion," and have settled into the Seat of Sophistry.

Republicans either need to stand for what they claim to believe in or admit they don't believe in what they claim to stand for—things like the sanctity of life, the integrity of marriage, and larger moral well-being of Americans.

If they take the first course, they will remain a viable political party. If they take the second course, they will not only become politically irrelevant; they will have lost their political soul.


KyCobb said...

Maybe Rick Santorum will get the nomination in 2016, and we'll see what happens.

Unknown said...

They haven't just lost their moral voice, they've also lost their will to actually legislate on behalf of their constituents, not just grand stand and be obstructionists. Indeed, it seems likely that the loss of their moral voice is related to their loss of will to actually do their jobs.

Singring said...

'Two seats in the United States Senate fell into Democratic hands yesterday for one reason and one reason only: the candidates were simply incapable of articulating moral issues. '

I'm sorry, but...what?!

These senate races were not lost because these Republicans 'badly articulated' moral issues. They lost because in one case they revealed a shocking lack of medical and scientific competence and trivialized rape (and that *is* a very clear moral stance that luckily most people don;t agree with) and in the other case, because the candidate made a very clear moral statement - that getting pregnant from rape is a 'gif of God' (!!!) - that agin, most people find abhorrent.

I predict that the Republican party will continue to lose in races like these if they maintain that someone who says that a child bron of rape is a 'gift from God' is simply bad at communicating moral positions instead of acknowledging that this is a very clear moral position that is simply untenable in an enlightened world.

Anonymous said...

Until some future US Supreme Court or Congress decides otherwise, marriage is a state contract issue, and any revisiting of Roe v Wade can only be addressed by the US Supreme Court, current or future. As for abortion, even culturally conservative, pro life Mississippi, with only one abortion clinic within its borders, saw its people reject a personhood amendment by a 55 to 45 margin. Make of that what you will, Martin.

Art said...

Martin, I don't know what you've been following, but "get raped, go to jail" was (and is) a position that is widely held in the Republican Party. Heck, the GOP VP candidate even feels this way.

If you are arguing that this stance is a winning one for the GOP and that they should defend it loudly and plainly, then you probably need to get out more.