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The GOP and Two Democratic Reform Models

As you probably know, there's been a lot of intra-Republican talk lately about how to recover from the 2008 elections, and more generally, from the disastrous trajectory of the Bush administration.

And as you may also know, most of the participants in this debate begin by asserting that the problems of the GOP are not fundamentally ideological, or if they are, it's just a matter of insufficient conservatism, or insufficient consistency. Those would-be reformers like Ross Douthat who suggest the old-time religion of small-government conservatism could use a reformation aren't making a lot of headway. Nobody's much in the mood to topple any Ronald Reagan statues.

It's not surprising, then, that the hot item in Republicanland right now is a manifesto entitled: "Rebuild the Party: A Plan for the Future" put together by two young conservative campaign operatives turned bloggers, Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn, along with redstate.org managing editor Erick Erickson. Two candidates for RNC chair have already endorsed the "plan" as their own, and the reaction in the conservative blogosphere has been predictably avid.

What jumps out at any reader of "Rebuild the Party" is the virtual invisibility of any ideological issues, and the extent to which the "plan" is a faithful imitation of the nutsier and boltsier sections of Crashing the Gate, the book-length 2006 netroots manifesto written by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong. There's lots about the revolutionary nature of the internet as a vehicle for organizing, fundraising, and communications; lots about the need for a younger and more diverse generation of activists and candidates; lots about rebuilding party infrastructure and competing in all fifty states.

There's some rich irony in this heavy dose of progressive-envy, since much of the netroots thinking that the Conservative Young Turks are slavishly echoing was itself based on a close reading of the rise of the conservative movement. But more importantly, the "rightroots" movement is missing a key ingredient that helped make the netroots blueprint so successful: a preparatory period of ideological ferment. On the center-left, that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as a result of the much-maligned but essential "neo-liberal" and "New Democrat" movements.

For all the Clinton- and New Democrat-bashing amongst the netroots, most honest progressives would admit that what happened in 2006 and 2008 was made possible in the first place by earlier party reform efforts that challenged the self-conception of the Donkey Party as a coalition of shrinking interest and identity groups huddled together to protect "their" pieces of the New Deal/Great Society legacy from the conservative onslaught. There wasn't much of a positive message or agenda, and not much of a strategy for a progressive majority beyond the hope that the GOP would fatally overreach (as they eventually did under Bush, Rove and DeLay).

It's reasonable to argue that Clinton's New Democrats themselves overreached through too many compromises, too much Washington-think, too much adulation of globalization and other market forces, and too little respect for the legitimate needs and interests of traditional constituencies. But as Markos and Armstrong recognized in Crashing the Gate, some crucial work was accomplished in opening the party to new ideas; in neutralizing conservative wedge issues by addressing long-neglected public concerns like crime, welfare dependency, and bureaucratic inertia; and in challenging interest-group tunnel-vision and litmus tests. After all, the "fighting Democrats" of the Dean campaign or the 2006 comeback weren't just 1970s liberals with better technology, and the Obama campaign wasn't just a hipper version of the McGovern or Mondale campaigns.

It took a second wave of reform in this decade to complete the picture by reconnecting the Democratic Party to its grassroots and its activists, and to constituencies that may have been maginalized during the Clinton years, while reviving the progressive espirit de corps and extending it beyond the Left's old redoubts.

In sum, the sort of technological breakthroughs and sheer fresh air the "rightroots" apostles want to appropriate for the GOP were an important part of what finally brought the Democrats back to majority status, but were not ends in themselves; didn't happen overnight; and weren't accomplished while pursuing an ideology that hadn't changed in thirty years. And that's why the latest Republican "reform" effort may well fail.

Consider the nature of the hostility being expressed by the Conservative Young Turks towards their elders, as explained in a Washington Post article about the Rebuild the Party activists.

Shortly after the election, some prominent conservative activists -- including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council -- gathered to talk strategy at a weekend home in rural Virginia. The Old Dominion, once solidly Republican, will soon have two Democratic senators and has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 44 years. Ruffini dismisses the value of the meeting.

"Whatever happened at that country estate will be irrelevant to the future of the movement. I'll bet not a single person under 40 was even at the table," Ruffini wrote on his blog. "The future will be shaped digitally . . . on blogs like this one, RedState, Save the GOP, the American Scene, and the dozens I have a feeling will be created in the wake of Tuesday's wake-up call."

These are tough and brave words, but from everything I've read of Ruffini and company, it's hard to think of a single substantive argument touching on ideology or policy they'd have with Norquist or Perkins. Absent any reconsideration of conservative ideology, the Young Turks are basically arguing that all the GOP needs are New Boys (and maybe even a few New Girls) with New Toys.

If they really want to revive their party, they need to pursue both Democratic reform models simultaneously: the late-80s, early-90s effort to rethink message and policies in light of a changing country and the lessons of the last eight years, and the more recent movement to accomodate new voices, new energy, and new technologies. Just imitating the more mechanical aspects of the netroots movement may accomplish no more than, to use a phrase made famous during the last campaign, putting lipstick on a pig.

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Ed Kilgore writes:

"After all, the "fighting Democrats" of the Dean campaign or the 2006 comeback weren't just 1970s liberals with better technology, and the Obama campaign wasn't just a hipper version of the McGovern or Mondale campaigns."

Perhaps. But if the Democratic Party doesn't deliver on some key issues near and dear to its base before the next election cycle, they will open themselves up to another left-leaning insurgent candidate like Ralph Nader. Many progressives voted for Obama on faith. If he governs from the center right, why should the party simply expect left-leaning voters to vote the Democratic line again?

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