TPM Reader BC has a question …
Look, I love Republican disarray as much as the next guy, but four months after E-day I’m still confused by this notion that the GOP’s now in turmoil because it lacks a “strong leader.”
I want to challenge TPM to question on this narrative a little more - because frankly, the more I think about it, the more it seems like the kind of lazy pseudo-explanation that mainstream reporters fall back on to avoid serious, thoughtful analysis of the party’s woes… And I come to TPM to get away from that.
1. What historical evidence supports this idea that American political parties are necessarly divided/ineffectual when they don’t have a single unifying leader? Who was the Democratic Party’s “strong leader” from ‘05 - ‘07, when they took back the House, or ‘07 - ‘08, when the party was embroiled in one of the most divisive primaries in decades but was wildly popular and energized in spite of that?
2. How is the GOP substantially more leaderless today than it was between, say, 2009 and 2012, when I think we’d all agree that it was quite effective at a.) blocking President Obama’s agenda, and b.) winning elections? And please don’t try to tell me that Romney was some sort of mighty unifying force for the party that they’re now lost without.
3. Are you sure “strong leader” isn’t just code for “holding the executive branch”? Because my sense is that, aside from rarities like the Gingrich revolution, the party not in the presidency almost always relies on a coalition of leaders for guidance and direction, generally including congressional leaders, popular governors, and maybe a few rising stars - just as the GOP is doing now. But as the questions above suggest, these parties are often perfectly capable of highly unified, effective action, despite relying on a team and not dictation from the Oval Office.
For me, all of this points to the conclusion that a lack of a single leader has little to nothing to do with why the GOP is actually struggling and divided now.
But I can also understand why the mainstream DC media likes this narrative. They much prefer a story in which a party’s political fortunes hinge on the strength or weakness of individual personalities - because the alternative is admitting that parties actually rise and fall largely on the merits and appeal of their policy agendas. That, of course, would require making some value judments about why one party’s policies are more popular/effective than the other’s - which, as we all know from the recent sequester debate, is something that the beltway media just doesn’t do.
I’m curious what you think. But my own basic response would be this: the ‘leaderless’ meme is pretty bogus and classic weak conventional wisdom. Few parties have clear leaders absent a president or dominant congressional figure. Certainly it’s rare after a presidential defeat. To the extent there’s a real issue it’s that the GOP is not united around a core set of political positions that party leaders believe have political traction. So for instance, undre George W. Bush there were various factions in the GOP. But the party was politically united around the War on Terror and taxes. Different people had different agendas but all believed that pushing those issues could get Republicans elected. And once a party is in power, everyone can get some of their agenda addressed.
To the extent there’s a real issue here it’s that the GOP at this moment has real doubts about whether a number of its key political drivers are going to be effective any more. Anti-tax politics has at least lost some bite. It’s even worse with anti-immigrant politics and at least to an extent anti-gay politics.
In the 2009-2011 era, the GOP was similarly leaderless. But opposition to Obama, debt, spending, Obamacare etc was clearly paying big political dividends.
Absent a clear policy-politics mix there is an element of every man and woman for him or herself. And that’s why I think there is something to the ‘disarray’ meme, though I think BC’s critique is still a very good one.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.