The State of the GOP

There is much to critique in Washington, but the nexus of the governance problem at the moment is the GOP.

While we are focused, understandably, on the presidential contest, and its latest twist, Mitt Romney’s choice of a running mate, the real story in terms of US governance remains the dysfunction in Congress, where it seems that actually governing is not the priority.

First, while still on the topic of the presidential race, I was struck by a statement by Samuel Popkin, a distinguished political scientist at UCSD. In an e-mail to James Fallows at the Atlantic, Popkin notes in commenting on the current presidential contest:

Whenever you hear politicians say the problem is the candidate, that it’s not about the party, you can be sure it is about the party.

Not only have we already heard some rumblings within some GOP circles about Romney (as well as some this weekend that I have seen in passing, about whether the party would be better off with Ryan on the top of the ticket), but if President Obama is re-elected in November* then this line of reasoning will come to dominate the Republican Party.  What I expect to see is the “if we had only nominated a real conservative, we would have won” argument (which will be untrue, but could have serious consequences for the party in 2016).

However, along the lines of Popkin’s statement, the problem isn’t the candidate, its the party.  As Popkin’s UCSD colleague, and my collaborator on an ongoing project, Matthew Shugart, would readily point out:  the structure and behavior of parties in presidential systems are heavily influenced by the fact that the main electoral prize is the presidency.  As such, critiques of candidate selection are not just about the specific candidate, but do redound to the party writ large.  In other words:  one cannot so easily disaggregate  presidential candidates from their parties.

To summarize the summary:  the GOP has a serious structural problem and it is not going to be solved by selecting a better presidential candidate.  The issues is far more about governing, or the lack of vision thereof, than it is simply one of candidate selection.

All of this is to point to the broader problem of party behavior in the Congress, and therefore to an interview with Mike Lofgren about his book The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.  It is worth nothing that Lofgren is yet another example of a lifelong Republican with conservative credentials who is not only criticizing his party, but assigning the lion’s share of blame to the GOP.  From the interview, and in response to a question over why he wrote the book:

First, let me dispel one potential canard: I am not a “disgruntled former employee.” I enjoyed my day job, which was federal budgeting. And I revered the Founders’ idea of Congress, which is the first institution of government outlined in the Constitution.

But I had become alarmed that my party, the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, had ceased to believe in the proper governance of the world’s greatest economic and military power. The party preferred gridlock and discrediting the institutions of government in a perpetual campaign of fake populism.

The GOP’s ransoming the nation’s sovereign credit rating in order to ram through their political agenda was the final straw that made me write the book. Even Ronald Reagan, the present-day Republican icon, had pleaded with Congress in the 1980s to give him a debt limit extension bill without extraneous provisions or gimmicks. The GOP has now become a rigid, ideological cult rather than a traditional, broad-based political party.

The bolded portion is key and underscore the main problem of the GOP:  the notion that it is a good idea to discredit the government instead of finding ways to make it work better.  The reason this is so important is that we need government and are going to have government and therefore the debate should be about how to govern, not faux outrage over government itself.

Along those lines:

A lot of politicians don’t want substantive solutions, they want partisan issues.

Example: my former boss, Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a reasonable guy who actually wanted real solutions to our fiscal problems, co-authored a bill with Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to create a panel to propose long-term deficit reduction.

The panel’s recommendations would get an up-or-down vote in Congress. Everybody liked the idea in the abstract, so it gained many Senate co-sponsorships.

Yet when the Obama administration signaled its support, several Republican senators, including minority leader Mitch McConnell, suddenly withdrew their support. When the bill came to a vote in the Senate to override McConnell’s filibuster, it failed by a small margin.

In other words, it was a good idea until the president of the United States got on board. This is the kind of petty childishness that makes our Congress a laughing stock.

This is not governance, this is simply partisan nonsense.  It also underscores that much of our dysfunction is linked to minority control of the legislative process due to Senate rules.

It is worth noting that Lofgren has criticisms of the Democratic Party as well, but he does not engage in false equivalency:

I have already called the Democrats enablers, and this is what they are because of their need to cater to corporate donors. It is also a result of their own pusillanimity. But at least they take a stab at governing.

The GOP is all into tearing down the institutions of government (or auctioning them off to corporate contributors – remember Halliburton? The U.S. Army can’t even feed itself anymore, even though its logistics budget is going through the roof).

The Democrats are distinctly sub-mediocre, but they can’t match the kind of lunacy you see from [lawmakers like] a Louie Gohmert, or a Michele Bachmann, or an Allen West, or a Joe Walsh in the GOP. And, no, they are not powerless back-benchers; their faction determines the circumstances under which House majority leader Eric Cantor undercuts the Speaker of the House.


It is worth underscoring that Lofgren is one of a long line of persons with substantial conservative/Republican cred who have made these arguments.  Another book that makes a similar argument is Mann and Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (which I am reading, but have not finished).  Off the top of my head, I can also note persons such Bruce Bartlett and David Frum who fit this general category (there are more, but none are springing to mind at the moment).

In short:  slogans, gimmicks, and ideology are insufficient for governing.  Compromise and politically viable solutions are required.  And while both parties deserve criticism (and yes, I would be more than happy to see more parties in the mix, but that isn’t going to happen any time soon, so we have to work within the existing duopoly), the evidence strongly suggests that the party least interested in governing the GOP, and I am not the only one to say so.  Further, it has to matter that many who are saying so (myself included, to be honest**) once thought of themselves as sympathetic to, if not part of, the the conservative sector of American politics.


*My ongoing critique of the electoral college behooves me to point out that, actually, the president will be elected/re-elected in January when the electoral votes are read in Congress as a reminded that, constitutionally speaking, the vote in November isn’t the election.

**For those interested in such things, I would note that I do not consider myself “conservative” in the contemporary sense (and it was a term I often had problems with anyway, because of tensions between classical and contemporary meanings) and nor do I consider myself to have a specific partisan affiliation.  I will say that along with a serious of philosophical and policy preference, some of which continue to evolve, I am fundamentally interested in the the very real need to govern this country.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Latino_in_Boston says:

    The GOP is in big, big trouble, regardless if they win in November, but especially if they lose. There is no governing vision. Their base is an increasingly shrinking part of the electorate, and they have zero ideas of how to appeal to the rest of the electorate. It has all become platitudes and empty slogans.

    if they lose against a President in the worst economic downturn in recent memory, what are they going to say? Only two possibilities: a) it was our candidate and he was not conservative enough, so they double down on going right or b) we need to rethink our party and try to actually offer policies and give a conservative perspective to general goals. I doubt b will happen. Instead, they’ll get an even more conservative candidate in 2016 (perhaps even Paul Ryan). At that point, it’s possible that the fever might break and that the party can be shaped in the Eisenhower mold. The difficulty is that they have structural reasons for moving right: talk radio, Fox News and the entire ecosystem of alternative reality they have built around themselves.

  2. Jeremy says:

    There’s also Daniel Drezner, who I thought hit the nail on the head:

    I happen to think that we need serious electoral and voting reform in this country. I have argued continuously that the “first past the post” system we have today was designed for a relatively homogenous society, before we stopped following the idea of having disinterested white patricians run our government. What we need today is something more like the approval system that can adequately match how diverse modern society is.

  3. James in LA says:

    Where is W? 8 years worth of campaign kryptonite. The real problem is the GOP has given up on governing. This whole Norquist pledge to take topple enough of government to usher in the theocratic oligarchy has failed. Even the government you hate has to be run, and the GOP has zero governing achievements on which to run since Nixon went to China. I would mention Reagan but he would not be welcome in today’s GOP.

    The future is going to belong to those who enter government with the intention to govern with excellence. Our growing information era assures we will see they do it. The age of the white lie, where pols — most of whom are still in office — could just fib their way through life and no one could possibly connect the dots, is over.

    Until the GOP embraces governing, they are finished. This temper tantrum of greed while running away from demographics is not going to cut it.

  4. Latino_in_Boston says:


    I actually don’t mind the first past the post system, although I see its downside. To me, the real problem is the gerrymandering of districts.

    If it was entirely up to me, I would create a federal elections system, not one completely controlled by the states. That way, either a national committee decided on all the districts in the country, or a neutral board decided them in each state. That way, candidates would have to worry about appealing to a wide electorate, and not just their base. This more than anything has made the GOP move so sharply to the right.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    “…The bolded portion is key and underscore the main problem of the GOP: the notion that it is a good idea to discredit the government instead of finding ways to make it work better. The reason this is so important is that we need government and are going to have government and therefore the debate should be about how to govern, not faux outrage over government itself…”

    And yet they have chosen as a VP candidate a man who, although he has spent his entire life working in Government…hell, he even relies on the Government for a place to sleep at night…is intent on dismantling Government.
    A man that, although his education was paid for by Government granted entitlements, wants to eliminate Government granted entitlements.
    A man that voted for every single one of the biggest drivers of today’s deficit…and yet claims to be a deficit hawk.

    Conservatives used to eschew ideology. Now a fawning acolyte of a two-bit “philosopher” is the saviour of the party.

    There is a lot to commend the Conservative Project…much of which I am sympathetic to. But today’s Republicans are not Conservatives by any stretch of the imagination.

  6. C. Clavin says:
  7. Ron Beasley says:

    The Republicans took St Ronnie of Reagan’s statement:

    government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.

    and ran with it.

  8. mattb says:

    Nicely written Steven. It also opens some interesting lines for viewing the ascent of Paul Ryan to the VP position as emblematic of the broader problem you (and your sources) are calling attention to.

    Take Larison’s biting critique of Ryan putting being a “team player” above any core philosophy during the Bush years:

    We end up with a view of a politician — and a party as a whole — that might have hated deficits, but were willing to continue to vote for them as long as they were being pushed by “their team.”

  9. C. Clavin says:

    Seriously…how do you look at a guy that sleeps on Government property every night as anything but a Government free-loader? Isn’t Ryan the very embodiment of the problem he claims to be fighting?

  10. Jeremy says:

    @Latino_in_Boston: Gerrymandering also needs to be addressed, though I feel approval voting would just be a far better system in general (and might make gerrymandering a useless tactic.) Even better than neutral boards would be purely computer derived districts.

  11. Barfour says:

    Republicans need to remember one of their own: George H. W. Bush who was a competent and intelligent patriot. He made decisions based on what was best for America and the world, not what was best for him or his party. Republicans today believe in strict adherence to a rigid political philosophy, which does not make sense, and they put party above country, which also does not make sense. American really need to learn how to elect smart and competent leaders not politicians who are cowards and have no vision. Smart and competent Democrats and Republicans.

  12. J-Dub says:

    The GOP used to pander to the whack jobs in their party. Now the whack jobs ARE the party, especially the abortion/gun control/Groverite triumvirate.

  13. David M says:

    I think current GOP “$500b cut to Medicare” is one of the better indications of this problem. The GOP says that entitlements are out of control and that we need to cut spending, yet they are campaigning against these cuts. Not only are they campaigning against the cuts, they are simultaneously claiming that Obama has refused to address the long term Medicare deficit. So they start out by claiming two things that are mutually exclusive, and are pretending to be against Medicare cuts.

    It gets even worse than that though, as the Ryan budget the GOP voted for includes the very reductions in future spending they are campaigning against. The Medicare savings implemented in Obamacare do not reduce Medicare benefits, they reduce payments to hospitals, prescriptions and Medicare Advantage. Obamacare actually increases retirees benefits as it closes the donut hole in the prescription drug coverage, so Medicare beneficiaries are better off now. The Ryan plan will pass the payment reductions to the individual seniors in the form of reduced benefits.

    So in summary, on the issue claimed to be one of most important to the GOP, they are proving they absolutely cannot be trusted. They won’t admit what their plans are and lie about what the Democratic plans are, all while campaigning against something they promise to support if elected.

  14. I twigged to this at some point, and in these pages accused conservatives of preferring bad governance to good, because bad governance was an argument for reduction in government.

    I mean, we see it in any “Let’s fix X” discussion. “No, we can’t fix it, we have to abolish it.”

  15. Latino_in_Boston says:


    I’m not against computer generated districts, although I’d want some human input and potential to redress potentially faulty districts.

    But I think in presidential systems having more parties doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes. Most of Latin America has proportional representation and lots of parties. The quality of governance is not exactly stellar. Brazil, for example, has done well IN SPITE of this system, not because of it.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James in LA:

    The age of the white lie, where pols — most of whom are still in office — could just fib their way through life and no one could possibly connect the dots, is over.

    I have to say James that I disagree with this.

    Birthers. Global warming. Evolution. No matter which side of any of those issues a person might take, one can find plenty of places to support the chosen one…. And yet, Obama was either born in America, or not. Either we are pumping too much carbon into our atmosphere, or not. God made the planet 6,000 yrs ago, or it came into being 4 billion yrs ago.

    Name any issue and you can find a lie and even more people who believe it.

  17. RWB says:

    While both dominant political parties are degenerate, it is very interesting that only the Republicans have a specific word for apostate members.

  18. Rob in CT says:

    It’s obvious to anyone who cares to look.

    Also, I generally agree with Lofgren’s criticism of the Dems (at least the bit you quoted). They *have* enabled this BS. Then again, I don’t know if avoiding capture by donors was really possible. Which is a depressing thought.

    The key to me is that when Democrats decide to sign on to ideas that used to be Conservative, or at least had significant Conservative support, that support vanishes. A bill with lots of GOP sponsors suddenly has no such sponsors and by the following Monday it’s evil socialism.

    Come to think of it… did this start in the 90s, with Clinton? I remember much whining and crying about Clinton “stealing” GOP ideas.

  19. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Latino_in_Boston: @Jeremy: While both your ideas have merit in my opinion they would both require some major constitutional changes that I don’t see happening. I think the gerrymandering can be addressed at the state level if the people are really serious about it, but party and individual economic/cultural/ethnic self-interests will keep districting procedures close to what they are now. I’m sure they will change with the changing demographics which frighten the daylights out of the Republicans I really don’t want the federal government setting up my district. As to approval voting, I can see that at the party primary level where constitutional requirements are not in play.

  20. stonetools says:

    At this point I’m not hoping for a reform of the GOP. I’m hoping for a mass rejection of the Tea Party candidates this November. The Ryan VP pick could facilitate that .

  21. jukeboxgrad says:

    they start out by claiming two things that are mutually exclusive

    GOP rhetoric is packed with so many contradictions that even their contradictions have contradictions (borrowed from a comment at NYT).

  22. James H says:

    I think Republicans’ behavior is going to come back and bite them in a big way if they win. Romney in the White House will just mean one thing for Democrats: payback time.

  23. C. Clavin says:

    @ James H…
    If you take the trajectory of the Bush administration from 2001 starting with a budget surplus…and tack it onto where we are now…a Romney administration would be devastating for the US. Team sports be damned…we can’t take anymore Republican voodoo economics. The experiment failed. Time to acknowledge the failure and move on.

  24. David M says:

    @James H:

    I think Republicans’ behavior is going to come back and bite them in a big way if they win. Romney in the White House will just mean one thing for Democrats: payback time.

    It would if the Democrats were nihilists like the GOP, or if having the government fail was one of their longterm goals. It’s difficult to collect a ransom from someone who does not care if the kidnap victim suffers or dies.

  25. Scott F. says:

    @Rob in CT:

    They *have* enabled this BS. Then again, I don’t know if avoiding capture by donors was really possible. Which is a depressing thought.

    Rob – You make two important points:

    First, it’s true the Dems have enabled a lot of this, though I think they’re in a hard place. The 2010 lame duck session is a good case in point. You had the Republicans holding unemployment benefits hostage in exchange for extension of the Bush tax cuts. The Dems are just not going to shoot the hostages in such a situation.

    Second, the money men have bought both parties to cover their bases. It is small consolation that the Dems at least are reluctantly bought.

  26. Rob in CT says:

    @Scott F.:

    When I speak of enabling, I mean for decades now, not just since 2010. But I agree with them being in a hard place. If money helps win elections and you struggle to raise money if you fail to suck up to the right people, well… whaddya do? Lose nobly or win ugly? But then if you win ugly, how do you govern? Ugly. 😉

    I definitely sympathize with refusing to shoot the hostage. But it goes way beyond that.

  27. John D'Geek says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Seriously…how do you look at a guy that sleeps on Government property every night as anything but a Government free-loader?

    Too broad a brush there. I hardly think that applies to the military (aren’t you hiring them to sleep on — and in — government property?), and even as a Pennsylvania conservative I have trouble believing that every single welfare recipient is a freeloader*.

    Now the welfare system is about as parasitic as it gets, but that’s a different story.

    * I have, unfortunately, known my share of welfare freeloaders. I have also known people on welfare who’s sole goal was to get off welfare — and found it effectively impossible. I can count the success stories I’ve known on one hand — one finger if you discount the children. Not statistically sound, but informative.

  28. @John D’Geek:

    Now the welfare system is about as parasitic as it gets, but that’s a different story.

    Only if you believe you live in a world without luck.

  29. John D'Geek says:

    @john personna: I was referring to to the system itself, not the concept upon which it’s based. “The devil is in the details” and all that.

  30. @John D’Geek:

    OK. I’m always open to better design. If some group can be shown to be self-supporting and free riding, I’m good with exuding them. I don’t like the “free stuff” reduction though, because that isn’t about selection criteria.

  31. al-Ameda says:

    As Mike Lofgren says:

    The GOP’s ransoming the nation’s sovereign credit rating in order to ram through their political agenda was the final straw that made me write the book.

    Essentially, the Republican Party is saying to the public, “once we’re back in control of the federal government all of our obstruction and idiocy will end … it’s just an act … trust us.”

  32. superdestroyer says:

    It is amazing that it took until 2012 for a professor of political science to realize that the Republicans are irrelevant and have zero effect on policy or governance in the U.S.

    One would think about watching the eight years of failure of the Bush Administration and the 18 months of incompetence from Speaker Boehner that any political scientist would realize that the Republicans are on the down slope of history and are totally irrelevant.

    Of course, I doubt any wonk or wannabe will be able to force themselves to stop paying attention to the irrelevant Republicans and focus, instead, of the very relevant Democrats and the coming of the one party state. Intead of 20 pointless blog posting about Ron Paul, Sarah Palin, or Chris Chrstie, why not focus on the economic, social, and regulatory programs of President Obama’s second term.

    One only has to do like the NY Times managed to do in forcing itself to look at the current one party state in California to realize that conservative politics in over in the U.S.

    The real question is who will be first in correctly predicting how politics will work in the future, how high the federal budget can grow, and had vicious the fights will be over government goodies.