What will it take to actually change the Republican Party?
Lessons from the '00s, and the lost opportunity of 2010.
I wrote this tweet on Friday. I want to elaborate on it below:
[TL;DR answer: party networks change. But they change slowly. And they only change after the perception takes hold that the people running the show are bad at winning elections.]
One of my standard refrains is that only the Republican Party can fix the Republican Party.
American government can only function if both parties are at least nominally committed to the work of governance. The Republican Party on Friday formally declared that the January 6th attack was “legitimate political discourse,” and censured Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger — the only two Republican Members of Congress who had agreed to serve on the House Select Committee on the January 6th Attack.
It is now effectively the policy of the GOP that violent coup attempts are just something that reasonable, patriotic Republicans occasionally engage in. Agreeing to participate in a formal Congressional investigation of a plot to overthrow the government, on the other hand, is beyond the pale and grounds for expulsion from the party.
This is the culmination of a long-term trend. It dates back to the Tea Party, obviously. But these wheels were set in motion long before that. You can trace it back to Karl Rove in the 2000s. My hunch is it really got started in the 1990s with Gingrich, who took power in the Republican Party just after the end of the Cold War and decided the old rules of good governance norms were for suckers. (You can't randomly shut down the government over a budget fight when you're also engaged in a Great Power struggle, impressing upon the world that capitalist democracy is the ideal form of government.)
Still, the question I find myself constantly pondering is what will it take for the Republican Party to cut this shit out? What series of events would be necessary for the Trumpist faction to lose power within the Republican Party network. What would it take for the still-very-conservative-but-accepts-that-elected-officials-have-to-govern faction of the party to gain power?
To answer that question, I think it’s worth looking back at how power shifted within the Democratic Party network in the early 2000s.
My first book, The MoveOn Effect was published nearly a decade ago. It chronicled the rise of the political “netroots” in America — a cohort of digital activist organizations that arose in the early 2000s, experimented with new, digitally-infused strategies and tactics along the way. Many of these groups are still around today (MoveOn.org, DailyKos, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, etc). The legacy of those groups will be a topic for a later post in a few months. But I think there’s a strong argument that their largest demonstrable impact was felt within the Democratic party network.
The locus of power in the Democratic Party in the 1990s and early 2000s was the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC was a centrist operation. It arose in the mid 80s, after Mondale’s disastrous campaign against Ronald Reagan. The DLC political program acknowledged Republican critiques of government programs and sought to distance itself from liberal/left politics. Bill Clinton was a DLC Democrat. House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt was a DLC Democrat. Joe Lieberman was a DLC Democrat. The DLC’s critics felt that this cast Democrats as “Republican-lite.” But, at least in the 90s, the received wisdom was that the DLC approach was the best path to power for Democrats.
There are two levels to the DLC program. It includes a set of policy priorities (welfare reform, industrial deregulation, neoliberal trade deals, etc) with substantive impact on life in America. It also includes a political style — Democrats as business-friendly, red tape-cutting dealmakers who can cut through Washington gridlock and solve problems by finding responsible middle-of-the-road agreements.
By the mid-2000s, the DLC’s grip on power was growing tenuous. It wasn’t undone by its substantively bad policies. It was undone because Democrats got tired of all the losing.
Bill Clinton assumed office in ‘92 with Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. They had two years of pretty underwhelming unified government, and then Newt Gingrich swept into power with his “Republican Revolution.” Clinton was reelected in ‘96, but the Democrats were locked out of power in Congress for the rest of the decade. George W. Bush’s 2000 win was a special type of demoralizing — Al Gore received more votes, and likely received the majority of Florida votes, but Republican activists demanded that the Supreme Court stop the votes from being counted. The Supreme Court acceded, and then the Democratic Party, in the name of national unity, just went along with it. Then the Democrats lost again in 2002 and 2004, this time after party stalwart John Kerry’s status as a certified war hero somehow became a liability against Bush-the-draft-dodger.
As the political netroots was coalescing in the mid-00s, the DLC was a prime target for their ire. The DLC was the center of the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party sucked at winning. It was time to fire the consultants, ditch the DLC’s losing playbook, and start standing for something.
Members of the political netroots also had substantive policy grievances — over the Iraq War, corporate power, health care, climate change, and dozens of other policy arenas. But it was the repeat losing that did the DLC in. The DLC shuttered its doors in 2011, but was basically irrelevant years before then. The Netroots Nation conference became a major event for party leaders. It wasn’t the sole center-of-gravity within the Democratic party network, but the netroots had succeeded in displacing the previous power structure.
The lesson I took away from watching those Democratic intra-party fights of the mid ‘00s is that party networks can and do change. But they change slowly, and the big changes really only come after repeat losses sink in.
Which brings me to Republicans in 2010.
It may be difficult to recall just how deeply unpopular George W. Bush and the Republican Party were when Bush left office. In October 2008, Gallup recorded Bush’s approval rating at a dismal 25%. (Trump never sank below 35% while in office — not even amidst the impeachment hearings or the pandemic mismanagement.)
The Bush years accelerated the hard tack to the right that had begun under Gingrich — Karl Rove was hailed as a strategic genius for abandoning the quest to appease political moderates and instead win elections by juicing base turnout through by pumping up the conservative outrage machine against all the usual suspects. (These were also the years that Fox News Channel became Fox News Channel.)
2006 was a wave election for the Democrats, proof that the Rove strategy was fallible. BUT! Within the party network, Republican operatives could insist that this was all because of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Abu Ghraib scandal and the Mark Foley congressional page scandal. Republican elites remained sure that the best way to compete and win was to keep doing what they had been doing.
Then the Democrats steamrolled Republicans in 2008. Obama started his term with a 60-40 senate and a 257-178 majority in the House. The Republican brand was trash. BUT! Within the party network, Republican operatives could insist this was because the economy imploded just before the election, plus Bush was an unpopular albatross hanging around the party’s neck.
The Tea Party movement in 2009 was, in part, a genuine outpouring of conservative grassroots outrage. But it was equally a rebranding exercise among conservative media elites and conservative political elites. The conservative Club for Growth, which had been running primary challenges against moderate Republicans since 1998, suddenly became a Tea Party organization that… ran primary challenges against moderate Republicans. One of the major “grassroots” leaders of the Tea Party was Dick Armey, who spent eight years (1995-2003) as the Republican House Majority Leader.
The Tea Party movement, much like the progressive netroots in 2006-2008, was trying to win an intra-party fight within the Republican party network. But, unlike the Netroots vs DLC in 2006-08, it wasn’t always clear which part of orthodox Republican political wisdom the Tea Party was trying to challenge.
2010, in this sense, was an inflection point. If Republicans didn’t make significant gains against huge Democratic majorities, it would’ve been a dispiriting blow. The underlying dynamics weren’t great for Democrats — they were the party-in-power, presiding over a bad economy, with a signature legislative achievement that was deeply unpopular. But Republicans had spent two years in all-out obstruction mode, and the penchant for more-conservative-than-though primary challenges had resulted in a slew of not-exactly-qualified candidates (*cough* Christine O’Donnell *cough*).
2010 ended up being a wave election for the Republican Party. Democrats lost 6 Senate seats and *63* House seats. Republicans walked away convinced that they had a winning formula — the Tea Party brand of even-more-extreme partisanship was fundamentally winning politics.
But what if it had gone the other way?
Obama’s 60-40 Senate advantage was briefer than it looks on paper. Senator Al Franken had to wait several months to get seated because his opponent kept things tied up in a slow-moving legal challenge. Then Ted Kennedy unexpectedly died a couple months later. And then the Democrats somehow lost the Massachusetts special election to fill Kennedy’s seat. Obamacare deliberations moved too slow and became a mess of compromises that left every stakeholder unhappy. The economic recovery bailed out the banks but hardly registered beyond Wall Street.
What if the economic recovery had gone better? What if Kennedy had lived longer, or if Dems had won the special election, or if Joe Lieberman had sat the hell down and shut the hell up? What if the Democrats in 2010 managed to hold their big House and Senate majorities — losing a seat here and there, but ultimately maintaining what appeared at the time to be an iron grip on the national government?
I suspect that would’ve been the moment of reckoning within the Republican Party network. If Democrats had done better in that election, the historically unpopular Republican Party would’ve faced a serious internal reckoning. That would have made three consecutive elections of disappointing results and a litany of excuses. Party elites had gone along with the Tea Party rebranding exercise. But if that had failed, there could have been a serious push to change how the party approaches politics.
It’s a short hop from Tea Party politics to Trumpist politics. The Republican party leadership spent 22 years telling Republican voters “screw those moderate elites. You can’t trust the insiders!” Trump made the same appeal, saying all the quiet parts out loud. Grassroots Tea Partiers traded in their tri-corner hats for MAGA caps. Republican leadership protested for a little while, then shrugged and decided to roll with it.
With every passing election since 2010, the odds of a serious reckoning within the GOP get smaller. If Hillary had not just won in 2016, but had decimated Trump, then maybe it would’ve been a cause for change (except the Tea Party wing would’ve insisted that the problem was Trump’s buffoon execution, rather than the strategy itself. They were all queued up to say exactly that in early October 2016.) If Biden had not just won in 2020, but if voters had elected Democrats in a wave up-and-down the ballot, then maybe… (except the Trumpists would’ve insisted it was all because of COVID and mail-in ballot fraud.)
Democrats did have a major win in the 2018 election, and that could have been the first step towards a reckoning. But Biden’s 2020 victory was just too close to dampen Republican spirits. Far from walking away from the 2020 election wondering if the party can ever win again, Republicans have walked away from 2020 convinced that (a) they secretly did win and (b) even if <wink wink> they didn’t secretly win, the best path back to power lies in pushing ever further right, undermining trust in government institutions and obstructing government. It’s Mitch McConnell’s approach to the early Obama administration, with twelve years of additional downhill acceleration.
Party networks change, but they don't change fast. The dominant coalition within a party network tends to stay in power until and unless the party network loses faith in their ability to win tight races. Trumpism is just accelerated Tea Partyism, with the quiet parts now said out loud and in ALL CAPS.
2010 was the best opportunity for elements of the Republican Party to fix the Republican Party, specifically because of the repeat losses in 2006 and 2008.
To have another opportunity like that, Democrats need to win — decisively and repeatedly. Big enough to be dispiriting for Republican faithful. Big enough to cause a commotion within the party ranks. And they need to repeat the win — not just in 2022, but probably in 2024 as well.
That’s a tall order, and with far too much riding on the outcome. Because now they’ve reached the absurd conclusion that, if Trumpism can’t win free and fair elections, then the problem is the free and fair elections.
It’s astonishing just how complete the Trumpist faction’s control of party infrastructure has become. Liz Cheney is facing a well-funded primary challenge. Adam Kinzinger sees the writing on the wall and is retiring. Every Republican Secretary of State that failed to demonstrate loyalty by helping Trump subvert the 2020 election is facing a serious primary challenge from a Trumpist who understands that their job is to “find the votes” that Trump needs if Election Day doesn’t turn out right.
The closest that the Republican party network comes to an internal counter-movement against Trumpian extremists is the Lincoln Project. The Lincoln Project is at best, a clever ad campaign that reinforces Democratic priors and is, at worst, a massive grift draining funds that could be better spent just about anywhere else. If your hopes for the future of American Democracy hinge on the Lincoln Project, you’d best have a backup plan as well.
Trumpism is anathema to electoral democracy. If you think that is an overstatement, let me remind you that the RNC has declared the January 6 attack “legitimate political discourse” and has sanctioned the only two congressional Republicans who were willing to investigate the attack. If the Republican Party hasn’t cut this shit out by the time they once again take control of government, we should presume it will effectively be the end of free-and-fair elections in the United States.
But the trick is that Democrats can’t fix the Republican Party. Only Republicans can fix the Republican Party.
All that Democrats can do is create a tailwind behind the segments of the Republican coalition that oppose Trumpism — either on policy or political grounds.
That requires not just winning, but sustained winning. It requires the type of long-term investments infrastructure-building that Democrats have frankly never been great at. It requires luck and heart and fortitude and patience. It will eventually require forging odd partnerships with emerging Republican coalitions who we deeply disagree with on the policy level, but who have a basic respect for governance norms that the current Republican party leadership is actively destroying.
It would’ve been so much easier if 2010 had gone differently.
But we don’t get to live in that alternate world. We have to make the best of this one.
It’s going to be a long, hard slog.