Something very interesting is happening in the Republican Party. It’s just not entirely clear what it is, or how far it can go.
Dick Morris and Sarah Palin are out at Fox News. Rep. Paul Ryan is helping House Speaker John Boehner talk his caucus down from the debt-ceiling ledge. Sen. Marco Rubio is going from one conservative talk-radio host to another to sell them on bipartisan immigration reform. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is telling Republicans to cease being “the stupid party.” Tea party icon Jim DeMint left the Senate, while FreedomWorks, a tea party catalyst, went through a nasty, costly divorce with its figurehead, Dick Armey. Karl Rove’s super-PAC is turning its formidable financial artillery toward helping Republicans win primary elections against tea party insurgents.
The Republican establishment is reasserting control. It’s purging some of the hucksters who’d taken the party’s reins — or at least the airtime — in recent years. It’s resisting much of the brinkmanship that marked the last Congress and trying to present a more fearsome, united front against counterproductive strategies favored by the right. All of the major 2016 presidential contenders have made the same political calculation: It’s better to build a reputation as one of the party’s adults than as one of its firebrands.
“We’ve had a period of this movement at the grass-roots level, call it tea party or something else, and it seems to me we’re seeing the normal progression of a grass-roots populist movement,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. “It ran out of control for a few years — that’s why we call it a movement rather than an organization. But it’s receding a bit now. That’s allowing natural leaders to reassert themselves, and institutional forces to reassert themselves.”
Just don’t call this process moderation. The Republican Party isn’t reinventing itself so much as reverting to its previous form. There’s little evidence of a rethinking of core Republican policy ideas. There’s no obvious analogue to the Democratic Leadership Council of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was a moderating influence on the Democrats, or even to the “compassionate conservatism” that George W. Bush promoted to the nation in 2000.
That was particularly evident last week when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave what was billed as a major policy speech at the American Enterprise Institute. With the ambitious title “Making Life Work,” Cantor’s address was thick with policy but thin on new ideas. Then again, that was the point. His aides told Politico that Cantor was “taking policies that have been on the shelf for a while, or back burner, and elevating them.”
The most significant idea was to convert federal education funding to a weighted-student-average model, as officials have done in San Francisco, where schools get more money if they attract poorer students. But the bulk of the ideas were half-measures, and many of them, somewhat ironically, are more fully developed in the Democratic agenda.
Cantor endorsed the Dream Act and green cards for immigrants who earn a master’s degree or doctorate from an American university, but he stopped well short of supporting comprehensive immigration reform. He offered a lengthy encomium to the government’s “appropriate and necessary role” in funding basic medical research, but proposed only that we reinforce it with the paltry sum we’re currently spending on social science research and cut some red tape. The section on tax reform was vague, the big idea on health care was repealing the Affordable Care Act’s tax on medical device manufacturers, and the solution for working parents who want more time at home with their children was to permit them to convert overtime into flextime.
It was hard, listening to Cantor’s speech, to imagine the person whose life wasn’t working now but would work after this minimalist agenda became law. The ambitious headline belied a more modest aim: Cantor’s intention, he said at the outset, was to “focus our attention on what lies beyond these fiscal debates.” But the reason Republicans have centered their identity on the deficit is that it’s an issue of sufficient size and scope to excite a political party. It is almost impossible to imagine the party reorganizing itself around Cantor’s menu of appetizers and side courses.
Renewal, however, is a process. After the 2008 election, Republicans went through their anger phase, engendering the rise of the tea party. In 2012, there was denial, which resulted in their choosing the least provocative candidate on the theory that if Mitt Romney could avoid offending anyone, voters would instinctively, overwhelmingly reject President Barack Obama. Now we’re in the bargaining phase, with Republicans hoping they can change only their behavior while retaining all their ideas. The question now is whether the Republican Party will be forced into the final step of the process: policy change.
“The Democratic Leadership Council was founded in 1985,” said Kenneth Baer, author of “Reinventing Democrats.” “Their focus initially was on intraparty fights. They thought that the activists took over the party and the elected officials who represent real people weren’t relevant anymore. They weren’t playing a big role at nomination conventions and so forth, and that’s why Democrats kept nominating extreme candidates. It was only after 1988 that they decide they can’t just critique, and instead have to put out an agenda. So they created their think tank, and their first paper said you don’t need to raise the minimum wage, you should do the earned income tax credit. Then they moved onto national service and welfare reform.”
This is exactly what the Republican Party hasn’t done. There are, in corners of the Republican coalition, dissidents calling for a new approach. A surprising number of conservatives have, for instance, begun arguing that Republicans should break up big banks. A few indefatigable thinkers, including Bloomberg View’s Ramesh Ponnuru, continually argue that Republican tax policy should be helping families rather than lowering rates on the rich. A number of important voices in the party, including Ryan, have called for a focus on restoring social mobility, but the concerned rhetoric hasn’t been matched by serious policy. None of these strands of thinking appears close to blossoming into a new, or even slightly different, agenda.
That’s the problem with the Republican establishment reasserting control. They’re still the establishment.
Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist.