Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Moderation in progress

Just to follow up on Greg's post (and some important earlier posts by David Karol and Jonathan Bernstein), the wake of a lost presidential campaign is an excellent opportunity to observe a party "learning" from the experience. Party activists are pretty hard-headed folks, but they don't like to lose repeatedly, so they'll update their beliefs about what sorts of tactics to use and what sorts of issue stances American voters like or don't like. Of course, they don't always learn the right lesson (as David points out, Democrats "learned" that Walter Mondale was too liberal to win in 1984 and they needed to start nominating centrists, although it's far from obvious that that was true), but they do take losses seriously.

This is how we end up with the famous Figure 4-1 from Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller's book The Party Decides. As the plot below shows, the longer a party is deprived control of the White House, the more moderate its presidential nominees become. One term out of office may be a fluke, but two terms is serious, and three is catastrophic. Parties take this seriously and tend to nominate considerably more centrist people, sacrificing a significant chunk of their governing agenda for a chance of actually governing.
But just how does this "learning" occur? Sometimes it's pretty brutal, and right now we're at the beginning stages of what is likely to be a difficult struggle within the GOP. The Tea Party groups and other conservative activists are quite strong in primary nominations right now, helping to drive the party sharply right in recent years. They are not going to relinquish power easily. But they are being challenged by some significant people, and not just at the national level.

For an interesting case study, please read this op/ed in Sunday's Denver Post by former Colorado state legislators Josh Penry and Rob Witwer. These are both serious people who are highly regarded in Colorado Republican politics. Witwer is a former state representative who has actively researched and written on Democratic political tactics. Penry is a former state senator and gubernatorial candidate who would quite likely be governor today if not for a Tea Party insurgency that produced the Great McInnis/Maes/Tancredo Meltdown of 2010. They've noticed that while Colorado used to be a reliably Republican state and is now considered purple, the GOP hasn't won a major statewide race there since 2004. As they write,
We live in a diverse state that is roughly divided between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Yet since the mid-1990s, our party has been barely distinguishable from the TV show "Survivor." 
Every year, we kick somebody else off the island. We make it easy for Democrats to say that we don't want the support of women, Hispanics, teachers, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, conservationists, Muslims and union members. Pretty soon there won't be anybody left to vote for us. [...]
Even the Almighty won't help us if we can't do better than a crusty old white guy with a penchant for running up the debt versus another crusty old white guy incapable of conveying empathy for victims of rape. 
There is nothing inevitable about the Republican Party. If we continue to offer voters poor choices cycle after cycle, they will decide that they can do just fine without us, thank you very much. Just ask the Federalists or the Whigs.
Expect those making these arguments to butt heads with those urging ideological purity in the 2014 primary elections. Long before the 2016 presidential field is set, we'll see plenty of debates in primaries for congressional and state legislative seats, starting roughly a year from now. That's when we'll get to see just how powerful the calls for moderation and openness are and how much Republicans are willing to sacrifice for a chance to lead.


  1. And today, the Rude Pundit had this take on whether parties learn:

  2. "One term out of office may be a fluke, but two terms is serious, and three is catastrophic."

    I'd disagree with that. Two terms out of office would seem to be a fluke, because of the incumbency advantage and the likelihood of the economy being good enough for the President to receive a decisive advantage.

    Besides, the Republicans already lost two terms in a row before, back in the 1990s. They managed to do a pretty good rebound after that disaster.

    If the Republicans lose a third turn however...well, that's a pretty serious problem. The last time that happened was in the 1980s, when you had Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Again, the Democrats managed to rebound after that, and win two terms of victories. But that required Clinton to reinvent and rebrand the Democratic Party.

    If the Republicans lose a FOURTH term however (the last time that happened was in 1948, when Dewey ran for office)? Then that's disastrous. The resulting change in ideology that would allow them to win a term after that could pretty much make them a different party with the same name.

    1. A couple of differences, however. Before the 1970s, things like Presidential nominations were largely controlled by the professionals. And professionals care far more about winning than the voters in the party primaries which now dominate the nomination process. Lose two elections, and you have the professionals' attention -- as we are already seeing.

      But convincing the mass of primary voters that they have to bend on ideology in order to get to govern? That's a different story. After all, their careers are not at risk from a spell out of office, and from not having their candidates win. They may not like the election results, but their pay checks are not going to be impacted.

      Also, while Clinton had to reinvent and rebrand the Democratic Party, he had a smaller job than those who hope to do the same now for the Republicans. The Democratic Party needed to be less liberal in order to win. But it was, overall, already relatively moderate. Clinton could have a "Sisten Souljah" moment, attack someone on the far left, and not lose much of the party base.

      But the Republican Party today is mostly not moderately conservative; it is *very* conservative. Anyone who has the temerity to attack someone on the far right is going to lose a big chunk of the existing party base. In addition, a lot of effort has been put into demonizing anyone who dares to suggest that compromise might be necessary or desirable. So it is both a bigger and a more delicate task to move the party back towards the center.

      Conclusion: the effort to moderate the party's stance may start now. But it is probably going to take losing more like 5 elections to get the job done.

      The good(?) news is that, absent a massive external event, they will lose those elections. Because if something outside (another depression, a major war, etc.) allows the Republicans to get back into office before they get reinvented, it will take even longer before we have a second sane party which can govern.

    2. I'll hold you to that prediction, wj. My prediction is that the Republicans will rebound in 2016 or 2020.

      Crowing about the Republicans losing 5 elections, and hoping for a "second sane party" is not a good thing though. Because if you want one party that governs America for 20 years, then you're calling for the end of liberal democracy for 20 years and a rule by a bunch of elite aristocrats. It doesn't matter if that party is "sane", you cannot, by any measure, have a functioning liberal democracy if you cannot have a functioning opposition party.

    3. Actually, I won't be able to hold you to that prediction at all. You said that only an "massive external event" would lead to the Republicans gaining power. The problem is, massive external events are responsible for changes in party fortunes in most cases in the first place! Economic indicators does correlate with the popular vote. In fact, I kinda remember an economic recession in 2008 that allowed the Democrats to gain the Presidency. Claiming that massive external events are responsible for party changes would also mean that ideology really doesn't matter in the first place, which I won't argue against, but if that's the case, then it really shouldn't matter how extreme the Republican Party is. Even if the Republican Party is left-wing, if they are not the incumbents, then their only hope is that "massive external events" intervene.

      So if the Republicans do win in 2016 or 2020, you would most likely find an external event, claim that it's massive, and then still claim that your prediction was right. So there's no point to hold you to your prediction; you placed a handy escape clause to ensure you'd never be proven wrong.

      Furthermore, several of those external events you named aren't really that external. The United States could choose to get itself involved in a war (yes, defending Taiwan or the Spartly Islands from a Chinese invasion or invading another Middle Eastern country to bring "stability" would count as "choosing to get itself involved"), or the United States could have chosen bad economic policies that have led to economic crisis in the long-term. How a country reacts to (or causes) these "events" depends a lot on whose in charge, and whether those people in charge do have the competence or the ability to actually solve (or prevent) these "events" before they become "massive" and a big threat to their incumbency advantage.

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