Last night, Kevin Drum wrote about the irony of claiming Democrats need a “big idea” to reenergize their long-term electoral prospects:
Movement conservatism, despite its frequent and tiresome pretensions, has never really produced any big ideas. What it’s produced is an intellectual superstructure designed to provide fresh justification for all its old ideas. Supply side economics was a new excuse for cutting taxes. Constitutional originalism was an excuse for cutting down the regulatory state. Neoconservatism was an excuse for old fashioned hawkery. Evangelical Christians provided ammunition for cultural traditionalism.
This is exactly right. The core of modern Republican political marketing isn’t “ideas,” it’s how to hide their brazen aims behind a new set of window dressing. All the proof you need is sitting in the Oval Office right now — a man who rose to his party’s nomination not because of any inspiring philosophy or policy accomplishments, but because his last name was the same as his father.
In fact, I was just writing this morning at Needlenose that the current Frankenstein-like efforts to give life to a Fred Thompson candidacy are a logical outgrowth of the GOP’s intellectual barrenness… and, in fact, something I predicted three years ago during the 2004 Democratic convention:
It’s hard to develop people who are good at selling your party’s message when . . . your party has tacitly admitted that its message won’t sell.
That’s why I’ll predict now that the Republican options for the White House in 2008 are (1) run some loyal governor or congresscritter who loses badly, (2) drag Jeb out of Florida to run (and lose badly), (3) move heaven and earth to amend the Constitution for Schwarzenegger’s sake, or (4) feverishly try to recruit some TV or movie personality who isn’t in politics now.
Keep your eyes open for option number 4 as the next couple of years go by.
A side note worth mentioning here is that the Republicans are so acutely aware of this that they’ve developed an entire worldview based on undermining the value of ideas and trying to understand policy issues. Instead, a candidate’s “gut feelings” and regular-guyness are seen as the most important qualifications for leadership.
This is a point I tried to make when I was pontificating on the core difference between the two parties last October:
The Republicans certainly know where the strength of their brand is, which is why they try to denigrate the very concepts of reality and pragmatism at every turn. The “Republican war on science” isn’t an accident; it’s of a piece with debasing the concept of a fair press via Fox News (adopting slogans such as “fair and balanced” and “no-spin zone” so as to corrupt them), ridiculing intelligent and articulate Democratic politicians as morally dubious girlie-men, and ignoring the foreign-policy arts of intelligence and diplomacy in favor of blustering threats and military force. In each case, moral and ideological certainty is portrayed as the highest ideal, and the willingness (or — gasp! — desire) to adapt to a changing reality is depicted as a sinful, deadly weakness.
The antidote, I wrote, is to make the common-sense desire to do the right thing policy-wise into a sign of morality and strength:
If you think of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you’ve got exactly the kind of identity that Democrats should be projecting — not ideologues wanting to revolutionize the world with grandiose schemes, but honest, morally centered men and women who want to do the right thing and are smart and determined enough to get it done.
After all, the “big idea” that many Democrats look back at nostalgically — the New Deal — came about not because people thought it would be fun to try a major expansion of government’s role in American life, but because the Great Depression had created such a desperate situation that radical steps were required. We don’t want things to get bad enough that something like that is needed again.