The ties that should bind the GOP

We Republicans are meeting the enemy this year, and as a comic strip character once mused, the enemy might be us. In this off-off year, when we should be coalescing and preparing for the challenges ahead of 2014 and 2016, we are testing the ties that should bind, imitating Harry Truman’s Democrats in being a disorganized organization. You don’t necessarily see this in Washington, D.C., where the Grand Ol’ Party’s fissures are less visible right now, except for possibly on the immigration issue. But out in the states’ capitals, those bubbling laboratories of democracy, the beakers and pots of legislative sessions are boiling over. Issues from the school curriculum common core to Medicaid expansion are challenging Republican unity.

We are not all on the same page. There are the traditional party stalwarts, the chambers of commerce and icons of industry that push us toward business-friendly policies. And then there are the evangelical leaders, once party devotees, who are now — finally — taking broader-based moral and ethical positions that are harder to reconcile than when church folk were simply focused on abortion and traditional marriage. And our libertarians try and lead us away from statism, while our Tea Partyers push us away from organizations altogether, except for their own. We are a boiling cauldron of competing leaders. And what makes it such as mess is that the rank-and-file Republican, the so-called “silent majority,” isn’t much taken with any of these narrower forms of what passes for big-shot Republicanism these days. My reading of the polls says that many ordinary Republicans, perhaps most, are not paying much attention to these debates that are occurring mostly among GOP insiders.

Take the whole fight about Medicaid. There are both principled leaders and self-serving sycophants on both sides of the issues surrounding potential expansion of Medicaid in the states. The same is true of the passionate debate over the common core in our states’ public education systems. Each side in those conflicts has its zealots, but despite the heat and light being generated, it’s hard to find real-life, grassroots Republicans that are engaged on these issues. We’re also starting to see some interesting Republicans challenging longtime GOP beliefs about things like the deterrence effect of the death penalty and long prison sentences, the need for some green policies, the effectiveness of our drug policies and even the role that tax increases might pay in balancing budgets. But who cares? Most Republicans at home are just trying to eke out a living. Or they’re focused on more mundane issues like getting asphalt on our roads or college tuition under control.

The real problem is not so much that Republican insiders are splintered over state legislative issues but that they seem to be so disconnected from the simpler Republicans that are the heart and soul of the party family. Will the insiders pay them more attention or continue their narcissistic debates?

These circumstances came to a head in one state — Alabama — recently when the Legislature took on the common core controversy. Despite being one of the reddest of red states and having a insurmountable GOP majority in the Legislature, any changes in core requirements were tabled after the movement conservatives wanting the core gone were stymied by the business Republicans who wanted to keep it. Legislative leaders there were wise to move on to other matters, yet the missing piece of the whole dust-up was any sense that the mass public, or at least the conservative and Republican side of it, was weighing in. Whenever the leadership pushes ahead without the followers in tow, the result is sure to be unproductive for democracy or party fortunes. But that’s where we are in this odd and off year.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.