As glib as it is to talk about how the 2008 election left the GOP in a fractious state, this is not just idle tea-time chatter for poli-sci nabobs: the GOP is faced with a Classic versus New Coke decision. They can dial up the Palin populism or chart a new course along with the Grand New Party types. And we can already start ascribing faces to each side. Ana Marie Cox has been assessing the future figureheads of the GOP, and, in a pair of interviews for The Daily Beast, the contrasts between the two potential party personalities emerge in striking fashion.
Mike Pence is a congressman from Indiana who's set to take over as chair of the House Republican Conference. About all you need to know about the guy is contained in Cox's deck text: he thinks "the GOP lost in 2008 by not being conservative enough."
Q: What do you think happened to Republicans this cycle?
PENCE: Well, I think Republicans lost because of a combination of a very well-run, national campaign by the Democratic Party and the Democratic nominee, and a profound loss of credibility on issues of fiscal discipline, limited government, and reform. And I think the way back is for us with OUR voters, is to renew our commitment to putting in to practice what we've always professed.
Of course, the one thing that the Mike Pences of the world are reluctant to address is the fact that the cohort he refers to as "OUR voters" were presented with a number of variations on the classic conservative candidate, and moved very quickly to anoint McCain. But I digress. Pence's larger concern is about the size of government, and he declares Bush's "big government conservatism" to be "a failed experiment." Frankly, I think that the failed experiment of the Bush Presidency had less to do with the size of government than it did with the overall lack of competence featured in the governance.
Q: But with the election of Obama, Americans have clearly embraced the idea of big government. What successful political candidates of the modern era have promised smaller government?
PENCE: I think the candidacies of George W. Bush certainly professed a commitment to fiscal disciple. I remember even Bill Clinton in his day. I remember the state of the union address, when he said, "The era of big government is over."
Q: But do you feel like he followed through on that promise?
PENCE: With a Republican majority in Congress, you saw President Clinton sign balanced budgets and bring about welfare reform. But I still believe in my heart, that most Americans know that the government that governs least governs best and that as government expends, freedom contracts. And I really believe with all of my heart today that the majority of Americans today, regardless of individual election results, or this national election results, are looking for leaders who will apply those principles to the governance of the nation.
Of course, Pence's response more or less neatly ignores the premise of the original question, that voters opted for Obama's vision of governance. Basically, Pence's prescription for what ails his party is to continue doing, to coin a phrase, more of the same, and hope for better results.
Tim Pawlenty, on the other hand, approached the question in a very different way. Asked to "decode" his vision of the future of the GOP, Pawlenty consciously steers away from bromides, and, significantly, goes right to citing policy initiatives:
Q: I've heard you describe yourself as a traditional, mainstream conservative, but you don't seem that way to me. What is it about you that makes liberals like me not frightened of you?
PAWLENTY: [Laughs] I consider myself a conservative, you know, it's a worn-out phrase, in the Reagan tradition. If you look at the whole Reagan record ... part of it was he was pragmatic, he was hopeful, he was optimistic, he was civil, he was positive. But I think the Republican Party needs to be more contemporary.
Q: When you say "contemporary," you don't mean moderate, so what do you mean? Decode that for me.
PAWLENTY: I will decode that for you. A couple of tangible examples. We were behind on the energy debate. It was a huge need. It was part of the reason we're in this economic trouble and instead of scrambling to come up with some stuff over the last year like we did as a national party, we should have been doing what Minnesota and some other individuals and groups have done and been addressing this aggressively, fifteen or twenty years ago. "Drill, baby, drill" is, not by itself, a comprehensive, contemporary energy strategy. We should not have been the party DRAGGED to the renewable energy debate, we should have been out leading it, with OUR approaches, ideas and incentives for it.
That's an example, another example: just the bread and butter issues. I won't go through them all because your eyes will glaze over, but one actual example is, people are worried--"How am I gonna pay for my kid's tuition?" Republicans could be very modern, reach out to young people by saying, "We're going to reduce your tuition, and here's how we're going to do it. We're going to make the program have more variety, it's going to be more accessible, it's going to be more technologically savvy, it's going to look more like an iPod than a 1940s assembly line. We're gonna offer money to regional universities or universities that can put all or most of their degrees online. And we're gonna help pay for it. Instead of building more buildings, we're migrating delivery of higher education services online and once you add one more student to an online program, the marginal cost is zero--and so instead of having a debate about tuition going up X percent or Y percent, we could be talking about tuition going down X percent or Y percent. And, by the way, you can access it anywhere, any time, best of class..." And that would, I think, relate to young people. It would be technologically "current," it would be talking about reforming the way we deliver a service, it would about providing it better, cheaper, faster... it would be "cool."
Of course, I have to wonder where Pawlenty was keeping this whole tuition-reduction-through-online-advancement idea the whole time he was flacking for -- and perhaps hoping to serve as the Vice-President of -- John McCain, who could have benefited from anything remotely "contemporary," let alone "cool." But this is why I basically consider Pawlenty to be the emerging "formidable opponent" on the GOP side, heading to 2012. Unlike Mike Pence, he seems to understand that a greater obeisance to the "worn-out phrases" that have defined the GOP's side of the endless "Red-versus-Blue" debate will not help his party's future fortunes. Rather, he seems to believe that a cure for the GOP's ailments, and service-oriented, prescriptive policies that address the needs of the electorate, are inextricably linked.