James Baker Advises the Republican Party

I am sure that the following is anathema to those who prefer ideological purity in the Republican party to the actual winning of elections–and to the ability to use election victories in order to claim a mandate to change policy for the better–but I happen to be enough of a heterodox thinker to believe that there is some merit to be found in Baker’s advice:

There was, however, one big loser [in the government shutdown debacle]: the American people. This misguided episode cost the federal government $24bn, cost the country a potential drop in gross domestic product, and cost the GOP an opportunity to focus on the extraordinary failure associated with the ACA rollout.

Most Americans blame Republicans for the fiasco. And the fight over reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling revealed fissures within the GOP leadership. Understandably, questions have arisen about the party’s future. Will it split between Tea Partiers and its more mainstream factions? Will a third party rise from the aftermath of this schism? Is the Republican brand so tarnished that it cannot take control of the Senate in 2014 or the White House in 2016?

Having participated in presidential politics since 1976, one thing is clear to me. The party out of power is typically seen as impotent, helpless and hopeless. But just as inevitably, that same party always seems to rebound after serious soul searching.

Moreover, there has always been a wide range of interest groups in the party. For decades, we have had substantial fights between rightwing and more establishment Republicans. This infighting was particularly brutal in 1976, 1980 and 1988, and we went on to win two out of three presidential elections.

The party’s diversity, however, is a strength, not a weakness. Today, Tea Partiers bring a passion that can be an important edge in elections. But mainstream Republicans remain indispensable. It may sound trite, but it is true: united we stand, divided we fall. I think most Republicans understand that.

So what does the GOP need to do now? In the short term, remember that tactics and strategy both matter. It was a fool’s errand to tie the defunding of the ACA to a government shutdown and a debt-ceiling debate. Because Democrats control the White House and the Senate, the strategy was never going to work. To paraphrase Clayton Williams, a Republican who lost the 1990 Texas gubernatorial race after a series of gaffes: we shot ourselves in the foot and reloaded.

That does not mean that Republicans should stop criticising the ACA. It remains an example of big government at its worst: cumbersome, complicated and intrusive. The best – in fact, only – way to repeal the ACA is to control the White House, Senate and the House of Representatives. Democrats, after all, enacted the law when they controlled all three. So the focus should be on winning elections to control those levers of power.

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