Political Rehabilitation and Financial Reform

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Republicans may be at their lowest point since 1964. Sure, they got walloped in 2006 and again in 2008, but afterwards seemed to project an attitude of "beaten but unbowed." Now though, there is an air of capitulation about them, with Tom Coburn’s glum admission that the reconciliation fix will go through being the most striking (not that they’ve given up the ghost entirely). For a movement that prides itself on toughness this has to seem like the worst possible outcome. Grover Norquist’s nightmare scenario for the Democrats must seem terribly close to their own.

They have no one to blame but themselves. Their law-and-order sensibility and party discipline morphed into a bellicose authoritarianism during the Bush years. Even when the war in Iraq became deeply unpopular they refused to force a change in George Bush’s policy. Instead they made it a partisan issue by lining up obediently behind the president.

I know I tend to have a bee in my bonnet over civil liberties and human rights, but I like to think their unwillingness to stand up for the Constitution, our legal system or our international obligations (the supreme law of the land, remember) might have played a role as well. The lost decade that resulted from the implementation of their economic theories probably did not help either.

The most urgent issue is that the GOP decided to sow the wind and is now reaping the whirlwind. Its base has a sizable number of maniacs. They have always been there, and Republicans have always known it. The perennial challenge is to figure out how to most usefully harness their energy while concealing them from the electorate. Leaders found many ways, from a sullenly nursed sense of grievance to cheap triumphalism, to get them engaged energetically but not too threateningly.

That deft touch disappeared in the last decade. Suddenly loyal opposition was treasonous and that those who opposed the president hated America. The base was never going to be particularly gracious about losing its majority, but putting it in such extreme terms meant they would view defeat as nearly synonymous with dissolution of the country.

Some on the right now feign surprise that the beast is loosed, and are looking for ways to tweak the existing model; others want to double down on the crazy. But whipping up the base has gotten all the mileage it will get. It has to be left alone for a while.

Listen, Republicans: the financial reform bill is begging for a little populism. Instead of giving it the rote obstruction that seems almost reflexive at this point, try something new. Use it to score points with the public by introducing something broadly popular that might even put well-connected Democratic leaders on the defensive, like your counterparts in the UK just did:

On Saturday David Cameron, the Tory leader, said that his party will impose a bank levy – being dubbed a "pollution tax" – if it wins the general election. The party would introduce the tax even if there was no international consensus.

If you pushed something like that, there is a very good chance it would put Beltway Democrats on their heels. It would play well in the places you romanticize as the heartland, and probably with your base too (or at least not drive too many of them away).

Make financial reform your new crusade. Pick a fight with the Fed. Hell, pick a fight with all of Wall Street:

You have authority to demand answers from virtually all of these entities, and especially the Fed, the SEC and the auditors. What are you waiting for? Why have you not already sought all the email traffic between the FED and Treasury and Lehman, and, as we have argued elsewhere, AIG and the Fed?

Sure, it would annoy some big contributors in the business world, but how well has catering to them worked out for you? You need to shake it up. The big picture is, for God’s sake forget about the teabaggers already. You don’t necessarily have to drive them away (though Lord knows that would be an enlightened approach) just let them fend for themselves a while. Spend some time on issues with wider appeal. You’ll be amazed at the results.

Right now the entire political discourse is contained on the Democrats’ side of the spectrum – both supporters of initiatives and opponents. The right has nothing but lunatic raving. Choose your battles a little better and your prospects will improve dramatically. There are plenty of gettable votes out there. And it would be nice to have you back in the conversation.