PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE

Posted in Rants on September 12th, 2012 by Ed

(Preface: Stick with it. I'm going somewhere with this.)

Football fans are familiar with the frustration inherent in rooting for a team that can only do one thing well. If they do that one thing really, really well they might win some games and get your hopes up, but the long term prospects for a one-dimensional team tend toward disappointment. In order to win the big games, a team must have balance or else it becomes predictable and easier for a good opponent to defeat.

Take for example that 2008-2009 Cardinals team I loved so intensely. They were perhaps the best passing team in football but could not run the ball one bit. The coaches and players knew they had to run (eventually) in order to win, and they sure talked about doing so a lot. But the pattern became familiar; at the beginning of the game they would make an obvious effort to run the ball, and when it did not succeed immediately they got frustrated and said, "Ah, screw this. We have a Hall of Fame quarterback and a receiver so good he might not even be human. Let's just air it out." And so they would overwhelm lousy opponents with their one strength. Eventually, though, their one-dimensional approach came up short in the playoffs. They weren't really committed to becoming more balanced, nor did they think enough about the long term benefits. Once they realized that growing pains can be unpleasant, they quickly reverted to the only thing they really knew how to do well.

As an avowed opponent of the sports metaphor as a pedagogical technique, I find this an all too fitting description of the Republican Party since I ran from it screaming in the mid-1990s. As the comments on yesterday's post demonstrate, the GOP is keenly aware of its very obvious demographic problem. We tend to focus on the Akin/Brewer/King-level idiots because they amuse us, but I sincerely doubt that Republicans on the whole are too stupid to realize that appealing strictly to white men, the elderly, and religious zealots is a strategy with diminishing returns. They know that they need to appeal to more people – more women, more Latinos, more gays and lesbians, more people under 40, more people who are not hardcore social conservatives, maybe one or two more black people beyond Herman Cain – and I think many of them even understand how to do it. Stop using gays and Spanish-speaking immigrants as punching bags to score cheap points with angry white people. Stop devoting so much energy to pointless and embarrassing efforts to legislate the vagina. Stop kissing seniors' asses when doing so creates two enemies under 40 for every vote over 70 secured. Be honest about believing in government and government spending on some things (the military, Federal subsidies, bank bailouts, etc.) rather than coming off as a bunch of howling anti-government lunatics. It really isn't rocket science. They could be winning this election handily.

The problem is that the commitment to the long-term benefits of this strategy simply isn't there. They start out every election saying, "Let's try to appeal to a wider audience this time!" However, the second they experience some adversity or discover that winning over new voters is hard, time consuming work, they run right back to the comforting embrace of their tried-and-true playbook: Gay bashing. Campaign season anti-abortion jihads. Nativism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering. Bellicose foreign policy and saber-rattling toward an enemy of convenience. Shameless pandering to the elderly. Wild anti-government rhetoric.

The problem (from the GOP's perspective) is that sometimes this works. See 2010 or 2004. And because it has worked before they will return to it at the slightest hint of rough seas. Every time they employ this strategy they modestly increase their short term odds of success while putting one more nail in the coffin of their future. I do not suggest anything radical like the imminent disappearance of the GOP, yet it is plainly obvious that all of their hackneyed schemes – suppressive Voter ID laws, attempts to reduce Latino immigration, gerrymandering, restricting early/absentee voting, and so on – are like fingers plugging a dike. If they work at all, they will not work forever. The country is changing, as the country has never stopped changing since its founding. The narrow appeal of the modern GOP bodes ill for their future.

I am not concern trolling – far from it. First, I'm sure their trusty playbook will enable them to win some elections now and in the near future. It's not like they never succeed with it. Second, I don't really care about the fate they choose for themselves one way or another. Finally, I think the country might derive some benefit from having a second party composed of reasonably sane people, despite my encyclopedic list of complaints about the two party system overall.

As the McCain campaign eventually descended into a sad buffet of the standard Rovian fare, so too will the Romney campaign as the election nears and they continue to lag behind Obama. While individual candidates are rational actors who inevitably pursue short term success above all else, the right as a whole continues to stare down the barrel at a future they are not prepared to face. They know how to prepare, but they never seem to get around to doing it.