Since the election season in November, pundits have been forecasting how the Republican Party will alter itself to avoid the results of the last balloting session. Will Palin populism mark the route of the future, is Huckabee or Romney the new Reagan, or will moderates of the Grand Old Party broaden the discourse? The topic has played out to the point where the word “rebranding” became passé in a nanosecond. Despite this amount discourse, it is certainly the case that those in the party are still not comfortable with the status quo.
From dinner tables to K Street, discussions of where to go next for the GOP have been occurring. In recent months some of those disagreements have been aired publicly. Perhaps most interestingly were the sound clip jabs thrown between heavyweights Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Colin Powell, Tom Ridge and Newt Gingrich in late May. At the peak of the ugliness of that discussion, Cheney went so far as to say that Powell "had already left the party” and that he “didn't know he [Powell] was still a Republican."
Addressing the remarks directly in a Face the Nation interview, Powell validated his Republican credentials and also eloquently rephrased his point of view regarding what this particular disagreement had revolved around. On one side Cheney and Limbaugh have been pushing for the party to remain true to the core, right-of-center principles of the past. They raised concerns that Powell and others might be suggesting throwing out the Conservative playbook. Critiquing Powell directly, Limbaugh pushed Cheney’s support for a right-leaning ideology to an extreme by stating "people in the middle of the road get run over."
On the other side, Powell, Tom Ridge and Gingrich have articulated a need for a big tent approach that engages centrists as well as conservatives in forming the party's direction. Powell feels the party should reach out and build on the base to remain relevant. In order to accomplish this Powell is pushing for dialogue where different sides of the party – especially those in the middle – help to shape its future. He is concerned that the party is moving to the right and therefore becoming representative of too narrow a slice of the population to remain a presence. Part of challenge to having this broad based dialogue as he sees it is that those who vocally oppose that right of center status quo are pushed out or quieted.
As Gingrich highlighted in his public statements, I am not sure these Cheney-Powell frames of mind are mutually exclusive. Conservative tenets can be molded to today’s perspectives. Moreover, I for one tend to favor a big tent approach. Democracy’s strength is in the power of a multitude of viewpoints forming a sophisticated direction known as the will of the people. The basis for strength in party ideals is no different. But, this open dialogue and Powell’s push for centrist inclusion might be problematic with the current party chemistry. Perhaps, embracing discourse runs against some of the fibers that make the Republican Party.
One of the many studies I read for my political science degree reviewed the internal cultures of the modern Republican and Democrat parties. In essence, the authors hypothesized that the Republican Party is top-down culture while the Democratic culture is one that operates more bottom-up. The authors cite institutional dynamics. But largely they point out how these characteristics are a factor of the backgrounds of the constituencies and leaders. To frame it one way that may oversimplify the argument, those with military and business backgrounds tend to lean Republican. In general, they are more familiar with hierarchical operations within an organization and Republican operations reflect these qualities. In other words, whether from a General, CEO, or pulpit, Republicans are used to orders coming from the top and their organizations and administrations operate more along those lines. Democrats on the other hand tend to be made up of more people brought up with a counter-cultural mindset. Consequently, Republican administrations tend to question authority and directions less and Democratic administrations house more dissent.
One might cite some of the recent discourse over health care as evidence of fragmented Democratic rule as compared to the top-down nature of the right side of the aisle. David Brooks recently highlighted in both the News Hour with Jim Lehrer and a recent New York Times column how moderate Democrats are calling into question the health care policies of Pelosi and Obama. He even makes the connection that the Blue Dog Democrats are potentially doing what moderate Republicans had trouble with during the Bush administration by thwarting a Presidential plan.
If this dynamic is the case of how the parties operate, it may seem to imply that the future of the Republican party lies either further to the right or in a place that continues the emphasize the talking points of the past as supported by Cheney and Limbaugh. However, I am not so sure that the outcome of the Cheney-Powell discussion is a done deal. If Powell is evidence, there are individuals who are willing to engage in discourse and question the status quo. So, as always, it’s a choice. The choice is for other moderate-friendly conservatives to question and shift the debate or let the top-down culture play out as it will.