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Reality Check For Republican "Reformers"

It is a good thing that some Republicans, though hardly all, have come to the conclusion that their party's problems are real, and that simply shrieking at Barack Obama and congressional Democrats while policing each other for any signs of heterodoxy isn't a very effective strategy for making an electoral comeback.

Yes, many conservatives aren't there yet and may never arrive, as they frantically look around, via slanted poll questions and vast exaggerations of the importance of "tea parties" that the polls somehow don't pick up, for evidence that they can't trust their lyin' eyes about the trouble they are in. Yes, there's too much quick-fix talks about social networking and grassroots organization that belie an inability to reconsider conservative ideology. Yes, far too many Republicans seem to believe that they can instantly wash their hands of the legacy of George W. Bush, who was somehow imposed on the party by "moderates" or space aliens (he was in fact the chosen and quasi-universal candidate of the conservative movement in 2000, and was nominated for near-divinity by conservatives in 2004). Some even seem to think that Arlen Specter has been the problem all along, and still others seem to have lost their minds and are yammering about secession and nullification like hormone-addled teenagers.

Nonetheless the "official" GOP has launched a National Council For a New America that at least pays lip service to the recognition that Republicans need "innovative solutions" to the challenges that Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are working on, instead of simply denying them.

But I have a bit of advice for these Republican "reformers:" you need to take a fresh look at how you understand and describe what Obama and the Democrats are doing before you can offer credible alternatives.

If you look at the NCNA press release, and its vaporous statement of purpose, you will see a lot of nice rhetoric about using non-big-government mechanisms to solve big national problems. What you won't find is any acknowledgement that Obama has already occupied much of that high ground.

For all the Republican hysteria about Obama trying to usher in "socialized medicine" or "government-run health care," the fact remains that most Americans under Obama's plan would continue to buy health insurance from private firms, and would continue to be treated by private-sector providers. Yes, there may or may not be a "public plan" in the competitive mix, but if that's "socialism," then perhaps Republicans want to call for the privatization of Medicare.

The same is true of Obama's cap-and-trade proposal for reducing carbon emissions: it is precisely not a government regulatory effort to dictate to industry how it operates its business; it's an effort to let markets determine innovative ways to adjust to an energy economy where carbon is priced according to its true costs. And the same is true of education policy, where Obama and most Democrats champion public school choice and competition. Republicans almost never acknowledge that. And then there's that instrument called the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, which was one of Ronald Reagan's favorite policy innovations, and a centerpiece of Republican efforts to find an alternative to welfare and support productive work. It's now the centerpiece of Barack Obama's tax proposals, and now Republicans are attacking it as "welfare."

You can get away with some of this sloppy rhetoric and mischaracterization that Republicans continue to embrace, but after a while, it begins to affect your credibility.

And here's the grand irony: if Republicans keep this up and offer "alternatives" to some fantasy-vision of the socialist extremist Obama, instead of the actual president, the public will indeed have a tendency to dismiss Republicans as offering "Obama Lite," the terrible fate-worse-than-death that leads some conservatives to oppose the very idea of "alternatives."

The point here is that you can't graft an effective policy agenda onto a delusional understanding of public opinion and the opposition. That's the lesson learned by Democratic reformers of the 1980s and 1990s who argued against a progressive "politics of evasion" that failed to take a realistic look at why Democrats were losing elections.

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The most delicious part of being a Democratic Party partisan at this particular point in time is that we face a Republican Party that has come to believe that their own concocted propaganda is actually the truth. The delight of this is compounded as Republicans are busy trying to purge anyone who is not ideologically correct from their ranks.

As long as Republicans put ideology ahead of everything else and as long as this remains a democratic country (emphasis on the small d) they will lose the votes of the very independent and moderate voters they think are really as far to the right as they are themselves.

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