Monday, November 12, 2012

Saving the Republican Party with A New Urban Conservatism

Let’s face it; the Republican Party is a mess. The residue from this election could not be more profound; this is a Party dominated by grumpy old men and their compliant companions. Those who voted Republican in the last election include these aforementioned people, racists, and people still horribly impacted by the Great Recession and lay the blame on President Obama. Mix into this group those who ideologically oppose Big Government and those reactionaries fearful of a changing culture and you basically describe the core of the Party. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I was raised as a Republican; more specifically I am one of those often discussed Montgomery County (PA) republicans. My representative for much of my youth was Lawrence Coughlin, the bow tied progressive that had no trouble winning reelection for well over a decade. Representative Coughlin was a true centrist, a group that can now only be found in fossil records.

Given this new reality, it is certainly fair to conclude that the Republican Party is at a crossroads. If those who now seem to dominate the party, mainly the rigid, strident, doctrinaire Tea Party republicans and their minions, refuse to be inclusive, and refuse to leave their ideology “at the door” as they engage in budget and other negotiations, there is a real danger that, at least at the presidential level, they will drift into irrelevance. Their presence also led and will lead to defeat in Senate and House races, as more and more electable party members refuse to run; those that do run face primary challenges by fringe candidates benefitting by the Tea Party’s ability to mobilize supporters to vote in primaries where low voter turnout amplifies their influence.

There are four demographic groups that shepherded President Obama to victory: African-Americans, Latinos, single women, and young people. Without overwhelming support from these groups President Obama would not have won reelection. The inference is obvious; if the Republican Party is to have any chance at remaining relevant they must appeal to any or all of these groups. The Republican Party can either embrace the new demographics or fight windmills while Democrats grow their base and support from independents.

My hope is that the Party will choose to broaden its base. This will require a new “variant” of conservatism, one that will appeal to those four groups. Already today there are several variants of what is described as conservative thought. Personally, I think that the Tea Party variant is so extreme as to be Reactionary, the right wing version of radical. On a continuum, they would properly be placed “to the right of right wing.” Some may see this as a contradiction, but I believe that there can be such a thing as “progressive conservatism,” progressive in the sense that the issues it chooses to emphasize will oftentimes differ from other conservative thinkers. Similar to President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” progressive conservatism is tailored to find appeal  in our urban centers, where the issues and concerns often differ from those in the suburbs. So what does this progressive, Urban Conservatism look like?

Eight issues form the core of Urban Conservatism. First is a push for greater home ownership, a key to revitalizing inner city neighborhoods and a source of equity for families to support their children’s education. Next is a push to support, either through micro-lending or more traditional sources, local entrepreneurs. Third is a commitment to public education, not through vouchers and choice, but by pushing to turn existing public schools into charter schools; the idea is to increase accountability and adopt performance pay in exchange for greater academic and managerial freedom; parents, teachers and school leaders essentially taking ownership of the schools.

Fourth is a pledge to reform the criminal justice system by, for example, supporting alternatives to incarceration and supporting the idea that drug use be rethought of as a public health rather than a criminal issue. It also means reforming the bail process to lessen its impact on jobs and families, especially for those accused of non-violent crimes. A fifth issue for this Republican “brand” is the family: make a push to “market” the benefits of traditional, two parent families: find ways to incentivize a push to have children raised by both parents. Affordable health care is always in the minds of citizens, and it is time for Republicans to drop its virulent opposition to “Obamacare;” push for reform but support the principal.  Job training is another key component.  Yes, job training does necessitate government action, but the focus of conservatives should be on the outcome, which is greater independence, moving people from dependence on government to the personal freedom derived from self-sufficiency. And finally, support our veterans. The military is a major source of upward mobility among minorities; a message that ties their quality of life to their relationship with the armed services will resonate throughout communities.

Urban renewal has been off the political radar for the better part of a decade. Democrats have, quite frankly, done little, believing they have residents’ votes sewed up. It is time for Republicans to step in and take a proactive stand on life in the cities. They have nothing to lose, and oh so much to gain.
It is somewhat ironic that the current struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican party coincides with release of the epic movie Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s retelling of the battle within Lincoln’s cabinet over, among other things, passage of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln’s ability to unify the disparate voices in his Party made them stronger, winning 9 of the 11 presidential elections leading up to World War I. Is there someone out there able to guide today’s Republican Party now and for the near future? One can only hope; the survival and relevance of the Party may be in the balance.


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