November 10, 2006

Rebuilding the RI GOP Part I: Forming a Political Philosophy

Marc Comtois

I think an important distinction needs to be made in this discussion about re-invigorating the Rhode Island Republican Party by "defining conservatism.' The attempt to excise the social aspects from the holistic definition of conservatism--essentially smaller government and traditional morality--indicates that it's not conservatism that is being defined so much as Rhode Island Republicanism. The strong on defense, small-government, low taxes, but mum-on-morality positioning sounds similar to Giuliani-style Republicanism to me. This is probably a pragmatic approach for a Northeastern state's Republican party to take, but let's not treat social conservatism as some sort of pariah.

Social conservatives realize that they can only be a part of the coalition that makes up the RIGOP. However, they also deserve to be treated with respect. Statements by RIGOP "moderates"--as when Sen. Chafee called them "radical right wingers"--don't help matters. Justin has explained--much more eloquently than I could--that socially conservative beliefs are sincerely held and are "above" politics. Nonetheless, in the political sphere, moderates and libertarians within the RI GOP can expect social conservatives to compromise to achieve certain political goals. But "Compromise Avenue" isn't a one-way street.

I think that Justin has correctly delineated the three groups that will make up the future RI GOP: conservatives, libertarians and moderates. Now, I have a pretty good idea where the average conservative is going to stand on most issues (small government, low taxes, traditional morality). I also think I have a good handle on what the average libertarian believes (small government, low taxes and "stay out of my bedroom"). I can't say the same about moderates. For now, I'll take my cue from Senator Chafee, a self-described moderate Republican, who stated yesterday that a he "care[d] about fiscal responsibility, environmental stewardship, aversion to foreign entanglements, personal liberties. This is the Republican Party that I represent."

It's obvious that there is some common ground to be found and I think that we can agree with the fiscal/small government policy that Jon Scott outlined:

1. I believe in low taxes
2. I believe in small government
3. I believe in a strong national defense (to include secure borders).
I agree that these can form the central pillar on which the RI GOP should try to rebuild. Yet, these are only goals: there is still disagreement on how to achieve them. For instance, I believe that most conservatives and libertarians would prioritize tax cuts, while most moderates prefer budget balancing before tax-cutting. I don't think it's a major stumbling block, though, and a coherent fiscal policy could be established that would be germane to future RIGOP candidates for both state and national offices.

Foreign policy questions are usually reserved for candidates for national offices. (This year was different: until now, I hadn't realized that the Governor had so much to do with the Iraq War). Standing for a strong national defense seems to be a no-brainer, but there is some difference of opinion just amongst conservatives as to what that means. Stay at home more--�essentially a defensive posture--or project power (ie; get them over there before they come here)? And what to make of the moderate position staked out by Senator Chafee that we should have an "aversion to foreign entanglements�" It sounds very Founding Father-ish, but I think that even many moderates would agree that this is not a practical approach in today's troubling world.

I don't think that there is much disagreement over the concept of strengthening our borders, but there are differing viewpoints over how to address the fundamental reason for why we need to do so, namely illegal immigration.

Senator Chafee mentioned environmental stewardship and this is an area in which the GOP, both nationally and at the state level, has allowed their political opponents to negatively define them. In our jam-packed state, fighting for open space, keeping the bay clean by improving city sewage systems, etc. are worthwhile and popular causes to embrace. Addressing environmental concerns go directly to quality of life issues and even have an economic development component. A sound environmental policy can explain how the RI GOP is just as "green" as most Rhode Islanders. It's our water and air, too.

These are all part of an overriding philosophy of government that the RI GOP should then tailor to our specific political environment. That doesn't mean sacrificing principles, but it does mean recognizing which issues should be emphasized. And the one issue that overrides all other is the business-as-usual approach in State Government.

Corruption is part of the problem, but lack of accountability and legislating behind closed doors (ie; open-government issues) are also viable areas for the RI GOP to address. It hasn't been for a lack of trying, though. Rhode Islanders seem to recognize that something is wrong with their state government, but they continue to enable the same Democrat leaders who perpetuate the problem by re-electing their own particular Democrat to the legislature. As it has been observed before, most Rhode Islanders simply think "my guy is OK" and it's the "other guys" who are the bad actors. Changing that attitude is the job that the RI GOP needs to undertake before it will ever make meaningful political progress in this state.

Trying to determine what it means to be a Rhode Island Republican is a worthwhile exercise. But unless the RI GOP can find attractive candidates to espouse these viable alternatives, the policy prescriptions concocted by us armchair philosophers and policy-wonks will be all for naught. Finding a coherent RIGOP philosophy is but one part of the problem. And it's the easy part. The RIGOP must realize that a party built for longevity is built from the bottom up, not the top down. The tough part will be finding and funding the right folks to run against the Democrat monopoly across the entire political spectrum. But more on that later.

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This was a very insightful post. Within the RI, the corruption issue will draw a lot of voters. But beyond saying, "I'm for clean government and against corruption", there needs to be a generally agreed set of policies emphaizing unifying as opposed to divisive issues as you correctly point out.

The foreign entanglement issue is a little tricky. Most moderates favor strong international involvement while it's usually conservatives like Pat Buchanan who want to pull back militarily or liberals who want to pull back economically. Regardless, I don't think that Rhode Island Republicans need to address foreign policy issues when there is so much to be addressed inside the state.

I would also caution you about using Chafee to define moderate positions. Make no mistake, his overall voting record comes out as a moderate, but he is well the the left of 99.9% of moderate Republicans on several issues. It is important to understand that many moderates, as well as some conservatives, supported Chafee because he was key to holding the GOP majority that could advance the Republican agenda. The party does not need to be so broad as to attract Myrth York.

I would say the RI GOP needs to be broad enough to reflect the beliefs of 55-60% of Rhode Islanders in order to be successful. This will mean that the party must be able to attract conservatives and right-leaning independents.

Posted by: Anthony at November 10, 2006 11:29 AM

Thanks Anthony, and I realize that using Senator Chafee as my moderate example may be a bit "extreme", but I think using him as such will help many other moderates realize that they may be closer to conservatives than they are to the person who has been held up as the moderate prototype here in Rhode Island.

I understand your point re: foreign policy and I originally wasn't going to pay it much attention, but the fact is that the RI GOP does need to stake out positions for both its local and national candidates. It is a secondary issue, but still needs to be discussed.

As I implied, I have more thoughts on party building, but more on that in the future.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at November 10, 2006 11:40 AM

Incidentally, I would also like to make it clear that I don't mean to imply that if the RI GOP determines philosophical approach "A" as the best way to address problem "A", it shouldn't follow that they won't tolerate those within the party who espouse philosophical approach "B". Individual candidates should be able to disagree with their party on an issue or two (the over under would be around 3 I'd say ;) and not worry about being called either a RINO or a radical right-winger.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at November 10, 2006 11:48 AM

My assertion that small government, low taxes and strong national defense be the rally point comes from two places. The first is a belief that these three points are universally supported by Republicans. They are also historic positions for the party in as much as abortion, stem cell research and environmental issues were not anywhere on the radar screen for Lincoln when the Party was first conceptualized. By first finding the things that we agree on we can find the common ground that will serve as the foundation for the rebuild..

The Dems in RI are actually two parties, not one. The entire entity consists of a dual headed monster alliance between the social Democrats and the labour Democrats. The agreed upon premise is the redistribution of private wealth - only the recipient of the redistribution changes. For the rest of the discussion, they put aside their differences and trudge on. We can not seem to find our common ground and thus lose our way.

Is there anyone out there who disagrees with a small government approach? Is there any one in opposition to a low tax burden? Does any man or woman in our Party rise to say that we should not have a strong national defense. Good. Then we have our common ground. We move forward from here.

Posted by: Jon Scott at November 10, 2006 11:50 AM

There was one reason and one reason only for staying with Chafee at all - that he would help keep the Senate in Republican hands. Now, there remains NO reason for a conservative or a Republican for sticking with Chafee, ie. the Bolton nomination.

Boy am I glad I didn't let him betray me.

Posted by: Jim at November 10, 2006 12:13 PM

I don't feel betrayed by Chafee at all. I knew exactly where Chafee stood on the issues and I assume that he knows that much of the Republican support he received was because of his pivotal position in retaining the majority.

I still feel far more betrayed by Steve Laffey who was willing to kiss the GOP Senate majority goodbye in a self-aggrandizing run. I just hope that a Supreme Court justice doesn't die in the next few years.

But that is now in the past and it's time to move forward.

Posted by: Anthony at November 10, 2006 12:51 PM

I think the key to building the RIGOP will be to draw a distinction between policies aimed at Providence and those aimed at the rest of the state. Ultimately, the Democrats are moving towards being an urban party in this state, and that finally offers the Republicans an exploitable opportunity.

We should realize, however, that a successful Republican party here will almost necessarily contain a fair amount of former Democrats, so any attempt to espouse and maintain a formal ideology will only make the transition more difficult.

The only message should be pragmatic, responsible leadership, and we should target the suburban middle class. We already have a little success with winning the executive branch, so we should build on that by focusing our building efforts on Mayorships and Town Councils.

That's what I think, anyway.

Posted by: Mario at November 10, 2006 1:37 PM

What you're referring to is actually an oft-tried (and often succesful) method of appealing to the country over the city, so to speak. In fact, the GOP dominance of RI politics from roughly the Civil War to the 1920's or so was because they successfully exploited this tension. (They relied on nativism and political gerrymandering to accomplish this, so I'm not advocating that approach!) The rise of the Democrat party in this state is directly tied to their appeal to the urban minorities.

A formal ideology isn't really what we're talking about, more a general philosophy. Conservatism is an ideology. A nascent Rhode Island Republicanism would be more like a political theory. Again, I stress (as does Jon Scott) that the areas of common ground that can be agreed upon by the various groups comprising the RI GOP are what need to be highlighted.

Nonetheless, while I'm all for pragmatism, sometimes the pragmatic "solution" is really only just a delaying action. There does need to be some sort of ideological underpinning to the party rhetoric or the party will be nothing but an exercise in political style over substance. This is the trap that liberalism has fallen into: they've prioritized making talking points and sound bytes that will be broadly appealling over coming up with meaningful solutions based on a set of sound political principles.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at November 10, 2006 2:41 PM

The first is a belief that these three points are universally supported by Republicans. They are also historic positions for the party in as much as abortion, stem cell research and environmental issues were not anywhere on the radar screen for Lincoln when the Party was first conceptualized.

Yeah, good thing that slavery mess wasn't a social issue...

Posted by: rhodeymark at November 11, 2006 9:16 AM

Let us not forget social conservatives. R.I. has a large Catholic population. Social conservatives have NO representation in R.I. and there are social issues coming our way that can help us build our party. The cover story of National Review discusses the key constituencies in the Republican Party this month. It is authored by Ramesh Ponnuru and is an important read.

Posted by: Sean at November 11, 2006 1:37 PM

Believe it or not, I've voted for more than a few Reps over the last few election cycles. One-party rule is inherently corrupt, regardless of the party.

My fear is that RI may be very difficult to reform. There are too few independent centers of power due to the small size of the state. I've lived in several, and RI more closely resembles a big city than a state.

So, while reform is a great issue, what's beyond that? I ask in all sincerity with the Laffey debacle fresh in my mind. Someone that conservative probably has no chance of getting elected here, or anywhere in the Northeast. You can disagree, but I suggest you look at the environment around you. Red-meat Republicans don't have much of a market in these parts.

So you can insist on ideological purity, or you can try and get elected.

Posted by: klaus at November 11, 2006 6:47 PM

We need only look at the concerns of RIers to know that conservatives can get elected in this state. Klaus is right, that is won't be easy.

Social issues won't make or break a candidate. Lawless ran strictly on the abortion issue, but up against a good candidate had no traction.

Conservatives need to focus on the economic issues. Most RIers would agree that our taxes are too high, our government too big, and corruption is rampant. A plan to combat these issues, and a well-groomed legion of Assembly candidates willing to tout this message, would be a good start.

Today, it seems Republican candidates must run on their own. There was no GOP bus criss-crossing the state the week before election. In a state where you can be anywhere in 20 minutes, the governor should have been knocking on doors in districts were Republicans had a shot. And Sue Stenhouse should have been with him to increase her support.

Leftists like Klaus say, give us candidates like our own and maybe we'll elect one or two. This is exactly what the GOP shouldn't do. Offering more of the the same gives RIers no reason to elect Republicans.

Posted by: rightri at November 12, 2006 7:20 AM
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