A lot of what’s wrong with politics was on display in yesterday’s Washington Post profile of Representative Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee. I think the article itself tended to flatter Cole, but it also highlighted some of the central problems with the art at which he excels.
Foremost among these is the focus on winning rather than on good policy. A friend and former California political staffer once used a horsemanship analogy to express this: It used to be commonly understood that a good leader gets the horse to go where it ought to, but now we’ve reduced the art of political leadership to the much less impressive feat of simply managing to stay in the saddle no matter where the horse wanders. That is the background assumption that makes it possible for the Post to write this:
Cole’s ascension raises a tough question for a party that’s still tied to that unpopular president and that unpopular war: Do Republicans need to change their policies, or their politics? Can they win back the House by distancing themselves from a lame-duck president and burnishing their image, or do they need a more fundamental ideological shift?
Now let me acknowledge the obvious, which is that the losing candidate’s policies and convictions don’t matter very much. That’s why I don’t particulary condemn the narrow vote-producing skills that seasoned political operatives use to advertise their candidates; they are necessary in their way, just like the skills people use to sell shampoo. Let me also acknowledge that political convictions are inherently bounded by the circumstances of a given time and place, and must therefore move with history. (Lewis Gould’s book Grand Old Party does a good job of showing how today’s two major parties have traded positions on various issues over the last 150 years.)
But to ask whether Republicans (or Democrats) can win as they are or whether they need to change ideologies is to imply that winning is the first priority, and the issues on which one wins are at best secondary. This impoverished understanding of politics would be no problem at all if it were confined to campaign consultants (someone has to focus on the “winning” part), and it might be only a small problem even if it were shared by the vast majority of elected officials. What seems different to me now, what strikes me as dangerous, and what the tone of most political discussion seems to demonstrate, is that this understanding is now common among most of the “party faithful” (a phrase that now begs the question, “faithful to what?”). As long as we’re all trying to figure out who’s best, the best are likely to win. Once too many of us shift our focus to who’s most “electable,” the connection between victory and merit is severed. The best person for the job may surprise us sometimes, but there’s just no telling what the most electable person for the job will do, particularly on days like September 12, 2001.
The article shines an unflattering light on some other troubling features of modern electoral politics as well, such as gerrymandered districts (“‘I think we’ve hit our floor,’ says Cole” — what a remarkable thing to say), the overriding importance of fundraising, and the continuing misuse of the word “conservative” to describe radicals and extremists of various stripes who just happen to call themselves Republican. It’s not a cheerful read, but I fear it is quite informative.