The great James Ceaser
writes the best summary of the meaning of the 2010 midterms that I have seen to date. I recommend taking it in tandem with Henry Olsen's recent piece
--which repeatedly has been noted here as deserving of much consideration and reflection. Unless I am misreading the two pieces (which, I confess, is entirely possible) they seem
to be in disagreement on one very important point. Whether they actually are in disagreement is another matter, but as this point is something that has been gnawing at me for weeks in my own consideration of the best of leading commentary on the election, I venture now to address it and put the question to you. Is it really true that Republicans--in the wake of this historic victory--have to steady themselves against the temptations of hubris? Is there really an overwhelming danger of so-called "over-reach"? And, perhaps even more important, what exactly do we mean when we talk about hubris and over-reach? Some clarification is in order.
Ceaser's closing paragraph comes closest to what I think must be the heart of the matter:
The Republicans' case [for representing the what "the people really want" from their government], . . . is already under assault. Along with the Democrats' open
campaign to persuade the public that the election did not mean what
Republicans thought, there is an allied effort underway, far more
subtle, to undermine and weaken the Republican position. It comes from a
group of self-proclaimed wise men who present themselves as being above
the fray. These voices, acting from a putative concern for the nation
and even for the Republican Party, urge Republicans to avoid the mistake
of Obama and the Democrats after 2008 of displaying hubris and
overinterpreting their mandate. With this criticism of the Democrats
offered as a testimony of their even handedness and sincerity, they
piously go on to tell Republicans that now is the time to engage in
bipartisanship and follow a course of compromise. The problem with this
sage advice is that it calls for Republicans to practice moderation and
bipartisanship after the Democrats did not. It is therefore not a
counsel of moderation, but a ploy designed to force Republicans to
accept the "overreach" and the policies of the past year and half. It is
another way to defend "the change." If Republicans are to remain true
to the verdict of 2010, they cannot accept that the message of this
election was just containment; it must mean roll back.
Olsen's argument, however, is deeply rooted in his thoughtful observations of working class voters and their fears of too much change. He seems to suggest that there is something very real in the caution offered Republicans to beware of hubris. Tea Party or no Tea Party, there is no evidence of a real and consistent conservative majority in American politics--as some hopeful or lazy conservatives would have us believe. Perhaps there is something fundamental in the American character that resists progressivism . . . but it probably does not reflect much of anything conservatives have done to win them over. As Olsen puts it:
Conservatives often assume that elections like 2010 show America has a consistent conservative majority. I think it is more accurate to say
that they show that America has a consistent anti-progressive majority.
The task conservatives have today is to transform the anti-progressive
majority into a pro-conservative one.
In other words, conservatives have still got a lot of persuading to do. And the problem for conservatives, as Olsen suggests and Ceaser flatly asserts, is that conservatives are the ones who will now be pushing for change. So called "progressives" will become the ones trying to preserve the status quo. If Olsen's understanding of working class voters holds true, there is reason to suppose that too much "change" will frighten them. Thus the caution--not coming so much from Olsen, but quite loudly from Democrats and some bewildered Republicans who do not trust this revolution within the Republican ranks--to "go slow," avoid the temptations of "hubris," and avert the disaster of 1994.
There are many reasons why 2010 is not 1994--beginning, above all, with the personalities involved. If ever there was a display of hubris on all sides, the Clinton/Gingrich cage fight was one for the annals. But leaving personalities aside, time and circumstance have been a great clarifying agent in what Olsen calls the "50 years war" (I might stretch it out a bit further than that, but why quibble?). But it is also true that Clinton won that match by allowing conservatives to wallow in their own victory. That is, he gave us most of what we said we wanted and claimed that it was nothing more than what he'd always wanted too. That people believed him and that voters were largely satisfied with this "victory" was our fault. We did not engage in the fundamental disagreements at the heart of our differences over policy. Instead, we assumed that voters were already in lock-step agreement with us on these fundamental points. We became policy wonks and we boldly pushed where no Republican had pushed before for that idiotic word: "change." To what, for what, and why were left there lying on the gurney--with barely a pulse to share between them--and expected to rise at a moment's notice and stand together, arms linked and firm in the face of an onslaught dedicated to "progress."
Conservatives are right to suggest that there will still be a lot of
work to do in the realm of persuasion. But when some Republicans hear
this kind of talk, they are going to interpret it as "let's not try to
do too much . . . let's be trimmers and go slow"--which means they'll be
tempted to compromise too much on principle and work at odds with the spirit of the Tea Party.
The failure of 1994 was not in going "too fast" but in failing to persuade as they moved. The Republicans of 2010 will make the same mistake, this time, if they fail to understand the spirit of the Tea Party which is, at bottom, nothing more than the spirit of '76. This does not mean that they have to set themselves up for a mad dash to satisfy the demands of every Tea Party organizer or supporter. But it does mean that they cannot act in ways contrary to the principles of 1776. More important, it means that they are going to have to understand what those principles are and they are going to have to explain themselves and justify their actions in light of these principles at every turn.
The Tea Party Spirit is not as coherent as it needs to be among the people most vocally clamoring for it. But that doesn't mean
it is actually
devoid of content. The content is there and it can be discovered and defended. This, above all other things, is what these Republicans were elected to do. Americans want action on behalf of directing the economy to a more freedom loving and, therefore, prosperous territory. But its almost true to say that they'd like that to come along with a tutorial for their friends and neighbors who now operate with only a dim understanding of these things, thanks largely to the progressive narrative of American history. They want America to once again coalesce around the principles they understand once made us great. They want to be great again and they want elected officials to be worthy of this project.
is not the operative word here. Slow is NOT the key element of what ought to be the recipe for GOP success. Persuasion
is. And while the GOP should make no compromise that involves compromising a
principle--it is almost more important that they be clear about why
won't make it--even if not compromising means that they fail to get close to achieving their goal. Little things
(and some big things) can be sacrificed or ignored if there is no
violation of principle or if there is no possibility of success for our
side. But the principle has to be explained every time something is
done (or attempted) in the name of it . . . and almost nothing should be
done that is not in the name of these big principles.