THE BLOG

What Do Republicans Stand For?

03/13/2015 10:21 am ET | Updated May 13, 2015

20 months before the 2016 presidential election, the Republican Party is floundering. Unlike the Democrats, where Hillary Clinton is the clear presidential favorite, there's no frontrunner for the GOP nomination. More important, it's unclear what Republicans stand for -- other than hatred of President Obama.

During the last week of February, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) occurred in Washington, DC. Speakers lambasted Obama and Clinton. Potential candidates competed for attention -- Rand Paul and Scott Walker won the CPAC straw poll. Nonetheless, there was little agreement about a positive Republican domestic policy.

The CPAC crowd did agree on foreign policy. Conservatives love the Iraq War, ridicule Obama as a wimp, are scared to death of ISIS, and don't trust Iran. The GOP's problem is that, at the moment, voters aren't concerned about foreign policy. Poll after poll indicates that Americans are worried about U.S. domestic policy, particularly the economy and jobs.

The GOP domestic-policy vacuum is evidence of a deeper problem: Republicans don't have a plan to move America forward. Voters understand the GOP seems to be opposed to economic equality -- or racial or gender equality. But what are Republicans for?

Satirist P. J. O'Rourke once observed, "Republicans are the Party that says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it." Three-months experience with a Republican-controlled Congress has demonstrated this truth. Republicans want to repeal Obamacare, but that train has left the station. (Unless the Supreme Court intervenes.) Republicans want to restrict the President's ability to effect immigration or block the Keystone pipeline, but don't have the votes. Republicans have no positive agenda.

Meanwhile, Democrats have a powerful story to tell. The American economy continues to improve; the latest jobs report indicated the US added 295,000 jobs in February -- 60 months of jobs growth. The president's approval ratings are the highest they've been in months. A recent Associated Press-GFK poll found there is growing support for the president's economic policies and "51 percent approve of his handling of unemployment." In addition, more than 11 million people have enrolled in Obamacare.

Since the 2012 presidential election the primary GOP message has been "stop Obama." This has inflamed their base -- and contributed to their victory in the 2014 midterm election -- but it doesn't give true Independent voters a reason to vote Republican in 2016.

Republicans are "hoist on their own petard;" victims of their own tactics. At one time, Republican had a domestic identity: "fiscal restraint." They were for "small government." Somewhere during the George W. Bush administration they lost their "small government" message -- witness the explosive growth of the Department of Homeland Security. This development put Republicans into a box: it's hard to be for "small government" and simultaneously support the world's largest defense establishment -- the US spends as much on defense as the next eight countries combined.

As a consequence of this cancerous tactic, recent Republican presidential nominees have been hamstrung. In conservative gatherings like CPAC they tell each other that they hate government, but in Washington, and on the campaign trail, they can't use this line because they actually love the behemoth national security state.

The 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, ran as, "I'm not Barack Obama." Romney had a lame domestic message: "As President... I will cut marginal tax rates across the board for individuals and corporations... I will repeal burdensome regulations, and prevent the bureaucracy from writing new ones... Instead of growing the federal government, I will shrink it." Romney tried to adapt Ronald Reagan's 1980 message: government is the problem; helping the rich get richer will inevitably help everyone else; and markets are inherently self correcting and therefore there's no need for government regulation. But after 30 years, voters were suspicious of Reaganomics and Romney.

It's easy to dismiss the GOP malaise as a consequence of their embrace of the status quo. Republicans don't want to break up big banks, or raise the minimum wage, or shutdown polluting industries, or provide women with access to health services, or close military bases, or feed and educate our children, or do anything of substance, because that would change the social order. After all, Republicans get most of their funding from rich white men and party leaders don't want to piss them off.

Contemporary American politics are all about money -- billions of dollars. And Republicans, more than Democrats, are behest to a relatively small number of rich, white, male donors.

The Republican moneybags want lower taxes and fewer government regulations. They don't care about the poor or women or people of color or the elderly. If the Republican plutocrats had their way, they would role back the social safety net: Obamacare, Medicare, Social Security, and so forth.

The problem for Republicans, in a presidential election year, is that these policies aren't popular with most voters. So the GOP has to go negative because they don't have a positive agenda.