Wednesday, November 5, 2008


In 2010, I genuinely want to see Republicans turn the tide and start winning again. But there's a catch: they have to do it the right way.

The "right way" doesn't mean they have to abandon what they believe in and move to the left. It doesn't mean they have to repeat that terrible experiment of the Clinton years, "triangulation." Wrong-footing your opponents by adopting a watered-down version of what they're pitching, just enough to temporarily placate voters in the middle, is no way to run a government. There's a reason so many of Clinton's voters had to hold their noses and vote for him, and the biggest part of it has nothing to do with the percentage of time he kept his fly closed. The impression he gave folks, that he operated on zero principle and a hundred percent expediency, came directly from the way he governed, and we're well rid of it.

So what do I mean?

I swung, politically, from the far right to the far left almost twenty years ago, which is another story for another time. But even after I did, one of my favorite members of the Senate was Nancy Kassebaum. (I was a debater back then, and we had no choice but to keep up with current events if we wanted to win, which is why I had a "favorite member of the Senate.") She was smart, she was principled, she solved problems, and she was a Kansas Republican. Another Kansas Republican was Robert Dole, and even though I had identified politically with the far left for a number of years by then, I nevertheless voted for him for president in 1996, because Clinton's behavior had so disgusted me, and I thought Dole was far better endowed with integrity and judgment.

Bear with me. I'm getting there.

I've also lived in Texas an awful lot, including my entire childhood and almost a decade of my adult life. If I had a hard time getting along with Republicans, I would've had fewer friends than George W. Bush currently has. Instead, I was blessed to know a whole lot of very lovable, very far-right people who were accepting, patient, and open-minded with me. And I've known a few who were so devastatingly intelligent that they could stick a stiletto in my political positions and force me to rack my brains as hard as I could to defend them.

People with those gifts and that temperament are not currently leading the Republican party. I have no idea why.

Right now, the Republican leadership is oriented toward seeking out fights, picking them, and landing enough punches to put on a good show. It captures the attention of their base, because it's human nature to pay attention to conflict. It harnesses their outrage that people dare to disagree with them, and that outrage becomes energy and motivation that drives them to write checks and cast their votes. But it's a corrosive, poisonous, self-extinguishing strategy. A rule of politics that is ageless wisdom, that you can carve into granite and count on, is that people who disagree with you do not stop being your neighbors. When Republicans work up the outrage over and over again that other people dare to disagree with them, eventually they alienate so many of their neighbors that government loses the critical mass of pooled effort that it requires. That outrage and hostility is, at that point, easily identifiable as the source of the breakdown, and as a target for those neighbors to smother with an electoral defeat.

Campaigning on enmity and hatred is a shortcut, and a terribly sloppy one. It amazes me now that Karl Rove actually spoke, in 2004, of the Republican majority being "permanent." He may as well have fogged the nearest window with his breath and written majority with his finger.

So what would a Republican win in the next election look like?

First thing Republicans have to do is grab the nettle and tell themselves, "Yes, it takes unusual intelligence and competence to govern." There is no shame in saying to someone else, "You're better at this than I am," or "You understand this better than I do," and agreeing to comply with their instructions for that very reason. And there is no virtue in saying "I like you, so you're in charge." Not a scrap. None. Zero. In fact, it's a boneheaded way to pick a leader. Time to dump it on the trashheap of history.

Having done that, they need to search out their brilliant members and listen to them. They need to learn to approach politics not as distributive bargaining, where there's a finite pot of goods to be split, and the object of the game is to beat back your opponent and grab as much as you can, but rather as integrative bargaining, where if both sides will agree to contribute all their talents to making the enterprise run at maximum efficiency, then everyone will get more from the pot, because the pot itself will grow larger.

How will we know this is happening? One big sign: the word "liberal" will never come out of their mouths. If the best a candidate can do is fling "liberal" as a perjorative term, then they've got nothing. They aren't bringing ideas, they're bringing leftovers.

This is not my wish or my request: this is my diagnosis and my prediction. Republicans can either make a clean, radical break with the tactics of the past, or they can muddle through, half-and-half, still contaminating their platform and their argument for people's votes with the old, polarizing tactics that make the negotiation distributive instead of integrative. If the Democrats had nominated Hillary, the primary candidate who had all the institutional advantages and knew how to play the game, I have no idea who would be president this morning. Instead, the Democrats nominated the unsafe choice, the departure, the one who didn't play the game the old way, who broke old rules and pulled new ones out of thin air, and the results speak for themselves: an electoral outcome that wasn't inches from stalemate, but was the most dramatic in a generation. Sure, economic conditions and Bush's mistakes gave Obama a cushion of voter discontent, but I'm convinced that the layer of votes traceable to those two forces is thinner than most folks seem to think, although historians may not be able to make that case this side of the next century.

For the Republicans, a clean break will harness the incredible minds that wait in their ranks, and will pipe new fuel, new ideas, new proposals into this country's engines of creativity. A cautious, muddled, indecisive housecleaning will not do. And if Republicans turn out for the 2010 elections still framing politics as a war against enemy liberals who must be defeated, then they're in for another thrashing, another piledriving, another wipe-out, to rival the one we just witnessed. And the painful lesson can be administered as often as necessary until it is learned.

I am prepared to wake up the day after the 2010 elections to find that Republicans pulled off a smashing wave of victories, and to smile and be glad about it, if they do it the right way. This country works best when everyone, from all political perspectives, chips in their very best efforts. This is a moment where a big national stumbling block has acquired an enormous crack. The Republicans can fill it in with cement and keep it in place, so we all can keep tripping over it, or they can stick in their chisel and finish the job. I pray they will, and I pray the 2010 fight will be an even match that brings out the best in everyone.

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