It needn’t come to this, but something’s gotta give. (Source)
The proposition of IQ2′s latest debate was “The GOP Must Seize the Center or Die.” David Brooks and Mickey Edwards argued for, and Laura Ingraham and Ralph Reed argued against.
Here are my usual hasty post-debate thoughts:
1. The team arguing that the GOP does NOT have to capture the center (Laura and Ralph) won the debate because they changed more minds, and yet they walked away with only 28% of the audience on their side, while 65% of the audience agreed with David and Mickey.
2. I understand the logic of how Oxford-style debates are scored — David and Mickey came into the room with a lot of people agreeing with them, so they would have had an unfair advantage if the victory criterion were simply the number of people who agree with each side at the end — but by the same token, they were disadvantaged by the Oxford-style rules, because there were fewer people who they could have possibly convinced. Only 35% of the audience could have changed its mind, because 65% came into the debate agreeing with David and Mickey (the same figure as at the end); but for Laura and Ralph, 86% of the audience was convinceable, because only 14% agreed with them at first. Under the Oxford-style rules, the team with whom zero audience members agree at the start of the debate, actually has an extremely advantageous starting position, whereas a team with whom 99% of the audience agrees virtually cannot win.
3. The moral of #1 and #2 is not that I am a sore loser (even if I am), but that whoever wins an Oxford-style debate is not a great indicator of whose position is more attractive. (In this case, at the end of the debate 72% of the audience didn’t agree with the side that won.)
4. The reason why Laura and Ralph won the debate is that they won a sub-debate over what the proposition even was. (This is a really lame way to win a debate. See here for another time that this happened.)
5. I thought the proposition was basically synonymous with “the GOP needs to win over the median voter or else it won’t win many elections,” and maybe also that “the GOP needs to move in the direction of the center in order to win over the median voter.” David and Mickey agreed with that interpretation of what the proposition was, but they got sucked into debating a totally different proposition, put forth (jointly) by Laura and Ralph, which was that the proposition was basically synonymous with “the GOP must adopt the ideology that currently sits at the precise midpoint between the two parties.”
6. If the proposition was what I thought it was, then it is obviously true. You cannot win a Presidential election without appealing to the median voter. You can win a local election without appealing to the median (American) voter, especially if the electoral map has been heavily gerrymandered, but not the Presidency. (Note however that the electoral college happens to heavily favor the Democrats.) In which case the debate could have been about whether the GOP repeatedly losing presidential elections would constitute “dying” as a party, and that would have been a more interesting discussion. And while I don’t think that that’s what will happen (a Republican will be elected President again, maybe sooner than people think), it’s certainly possible that the GOP will endure a long time without winning the White House, which would have been a very interesting possibility to see debated.
7. If the proposition was what Ralph and Laura thought it was — that the GOP needs to become the center, by occupying the ideological center at the exact mid-point, the 50-yard-line, between the two parties – then that’s obviously not true, and they should win. By virtually any measure of ideology, the person who is elected President is never (and has never been, nor probably ever will be) someone whose ideology sits at the exact midpoint between his own party’s ideology and his opponent’s. That is also often true at the state and local level, though not always. Hence Laura and Ralph’s interpretation of the proposition is ridiculous — honestly, does anyone think the GOP needs to become the midpoint between the two parties? Of course not. The real debate, which the party and the country is actually happening, is about whether/how/how much the GOP needs to moderate, not about whether some mythical mid-point is where they should go. That interpretation of the proposition was a straw man, but David and Mickey got sucked into debating it, David especially, which was an unforced error on their part.
8. Now let’s assume that the proposition was what I thought it was. Here is how the proposition would be analyzed: Does the GOP have to appeal to the median voter if it wants to win many elections? If not, why not? If so, does it have to move in the direction of the ideological midpoint, or can it simply market its current ideology better? Are the answers to these questions different or uniform across presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, and local elections? And what would constitute the “death” of the party, exactly? These would have been the interesting questions, but we didn’t hear enough about them because of the confusion about the proposition.
9. Here are the two question I would have asked Laura and Ralph (and yes I’d sneak both of them under John Donvan’s nose, even though you’re only supposed to ask one question):
“Almost immediately after Mitt Romney lost in 2012, Sean Hannity declared that he had ‘evolved’ on the issue of immigration. In your opinion, 1) do you consider that a move towards the center, and 2) has he and all the other Republicans who have ‘evolved’ on immigration since November made a mistake?”
10. For some reason Laura kept talking about how the center moves around a lot, how the center changes, and how the GOP stayed stationary but the center moved left, or whatever. She spent a while on this, but I didn’t see what it had to do with her side of the proposition. What difference does it make how the GOP came to be viewed as an extreme party? If the center moves, then you have to move too, because the center votes just like everybody else. That is the essence of democracy. And if she thinks the center will move back her way, then she should have argued that point, but she never did. She seemed to just be throwing up her hands and saying, “don’t worry, they’ll come back to us eventually,” as if it were an idea that needed no serious argumentation or evidence to be taken seriously.
11. Ralph repeated this line you hear a lot now, that the GOP doesn’t need to change its ideology, it just needs to market its ideology better, “maybe.” That idea was and is delusional — obviously there will need to be substantive changes in the GOP’s policy platform if it wants to keep getting elected. (See here if you want a good laugh about this.) And yes, I do think the GOP will make such substantive changes, and indeed it has already has begun to do so, on immigration and gay rights, to the party’s long-term benefit.
12. David and Mickey (but especially Mickey) made the excellent argument that the GOP could keep its core principles and ideology completely unchanged and advance them better, if only they would compromise. They can trade away some battles for the sake of winning the larger war. And this is exactly correct. Part of why there has been no budget passed in God-knows-how-long is that Republicans are afraid of agreeing on anything with the President. But surely the could do better, on their own terms, than what Congress has managed to do with ad hoc appropriations bills and continuing resolutions? (And no, I’m not referring to the whole 10-to-1 spending-cuts-to-tax-increases thing, I understand why the GOP doesn’t trust that compromise.)
13. At a certain point, the whole idea of a left-right spectrum starts to break down. It is a useful political shorthand, but it’s not all that useful for making grand, sweeping statements like “George W. Bush was a moderate” or “George W. Bush was a conservative.” George Bush was a strong conservative on some issues (gay rights) and a moderate on others (immigration). He both won and lost votes by taking both types of positions, depending on the circumstances. Politics is not a one-dimensional, left-right, red-blue spectrum, but a complex, pluralistic, multi-issue system. It is more like a George R. R. Martin novel than a fairy tale — there are good and bad guys, and good and bad ideas, on all sides, and there are many sides. Likewise there are many, many different types of voters. There are also more than two types of positions on nearly every important issue. Given all this, it is completely possible for the GOP to become more moderate on some issues even as it becomes more extreme on other issues, and on net win or lose votes accordingly. This fact had important implications for this debate, which largely went unxploited by David and Mickey.
14. In particular, David and Mickey would have been much better off talking about specific issues, such as immigration, and showing that the GOP must moderate on those specific issues, instead of arguing about sweeping questions like “was George W. Bush a moderate or a conservative? How’d he fare electorally? And what’s that say about being a moderate or a conservative?” David in particular got sucked into that kind of conversation, instigated by Laura, but he didn’t have to. It is very difficult to say whether the party has moved or will move in any particular direction as a whole, and much easier to break everything down by issue; in other words, aggregation is difficult and fraught with error, so don’t judge the direction the party is moving on the basis of one or two or even several issues. Laura and Ralph managed to say things like, “on issue X we must stay right where we are, because we need evangelical voters.” Which was fine for them, but David and Mickey could have easily said “on issue Y we must move towards the center, because we need <pick your favorite demographic> voters.” The conversation was way too broad, sweeping, and aggregated.
15. Laura exhibited some stunningly bad logic when it came to Scott Brown (the former Massachusetts Senator who recently lost his seat to Elizabeth Warren). She said something along the lines of, “if you [David and Micky] were right that the GOP needs to seize the center, then we would have expected Scott Brown to win in Massachusetts, but Scott Brown lost, so you’re wrong.” Did she pay any attention to that election? Scott Brown did not lose to Elizabeth Warren — he lost to the extremists in his own party, and the only reason he even stood a chance against Elizabeth Warren is because he was a moderate. Most people in Massachusetts rather like Scott Brown — in fact I like Scott Brown, and there’s very little to dislike about him no matter who you are. And if you take a look at his political positions, he is an extremely agreeable candidate to 95% of voters in Massachusetts (not surprisingly). And while some voters really liked Elizabeth Warren, that’s not really why she won. She won (by 8 percentage points!) in large part because people in Massachusetts associated (correctly) Scott Brown with his party, which was (and is) much more extreme than he is. He was viewed by many as a good kid who started running with the wrong crowd.
16. Laura made a similar argument about McCain — as if McCain somehow lost because he was a moderate. Please… McCain lost, if anything, because his ticket was completely insane — Sarah Palin, Beuler, Beuler..? He was clearly the more moderate candidate of the two people on his ticket, and he was clearly the more electable. This much is obvious to most people who were paying any attention in 2008, including many Republicans! That Laura thinks McCain lost because he wasn’t conservative enough is pretty politically tone-deaf. He lost because Sarah Palin came across as a nut job. Also note that whatever you think of Barack Obama as President, as a candidate in ’08 he was a consummate moderate, the quintessenatial “we’re all Americans” kind of candidate. He had very broad appeal precisely because he was not like Sarah Palin — he was agreeable. I think Laura just couldn’t separate Obama in ’08 from her understanding of Obama as President, but if you look back on what happened in ’08 you will see that it’s a perfect case study in why the GOP needs to move closer towards the center.
17. I was both disturbed and inspired by something Ralph said in response to a question about the definition of the word “conservative.” He said that “conservativism” was a philosophy of limited government, and without qualifying that definition it came across as simply a conflation of conservativism with libertarianism. It’s like he didn’t even realize or admit that they were two completely different (and incompatible) ideologies, which is surprising given his role in the Faith and Freedom Coalition. John Donvan (the moderator) asked in response, “so where do social issues come into that definition?”, which the audience loved (wasn’t it obvious?) and applauded so loudly that John had to reiterate to the audience that he was not taking a side in the debate, just asking him to complete his definition… at which point Laura yelled out “media bias!” (I couldn’t tell to what extent she was joking.)
18. Consider Hayek’s definition of conservativism: “Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.” Hayek’s definition of libertarianism, on the other hand (or what Hayek was more willing to call “classical liberalism”), “differs as much from true conservatism as from socialism.” (Go to the link for a fuller discussion of Hayek’s conservative-libertarian-progressive triangle. I think it’s a much more accurate and intuitive way of understanding and organizing American politics, and so apparently does Arnold Kling.)
19. Very briefly, Laura and Ralph did some clever logical gymnastics, trying to reconcile several incompatible conservative and libertarian views (for example, the idea that fetuses are people with rights to liberty solves an obvious conflict), but when you consider the much larger set of incompatible conservative and libertarian views it becomes very clear that they are fundamentally irreconcilable. Also see #19 above, and read it in full.
20. The reason I find Ralph’s apparent cognitive dissonance a little disturbing is because by conflating conservativism with libertarianism, Ralph is unwittingly advancing illiberal views on everything from immigration to sodomy, and I don’t think he realizes just how backwards and reactionary those views are, and how they might violate some of his own dear and precious views about liberty, state, and the individual. If he really does care about freedom, then he needs to take a step back from his conservativism and identify himself differently. And if he really is a conservative, then he needs to amend his definition of conservative accordingly and admit that his philosophy is not inherently liberty-loving — that he does want more than just a minimal state.
21. The reason I find this inspiring, on the other hand, is that it gives me hope that some conservatives could easily “wake up” and propose a much more healthy, sensible, and pro-social set of policies. (If you can’t tell, I really much prefer libertarianism to conservativism, though I am not a strong libertarian, nor any kind of -ist or -arian or -ive.)
22. Laura really needed to stop interrupting everyone and listen more. She treated this debate like she treats the Laura Ingraham Show, but the thing about having a real debate is that all sides must be heard, including (or should I say especially?) the debaters. Each side must be able to fully understand the other in order to have any rational basis for disagreeing, and so does the audience, and that in turn requires that everyone be able to finish a sentence or an idea without another person speaking at the same time. See John Stuart Mill for much more on this.
23. Ralph had many good historical examples of the GOP coming back from the brink of death, and they are largely what convince me that the GOP will indeed recover from November 2012. I would remind him, howver, that the Lucas critique applies here, owing especially to changing demographics which did not exist in the past — a) an unusually large number of old people gradually dying or becoming disinterested in politics; b) a somewhat large cohort of young people gradually reaching voting age; c) a large number of Hispanics immigrating, having children, and possibly eventually obtaining citizenship; and d) the political implications of racial intermarraige. Mickey tried to make this point but was probably cut off by Laura, I don’t remember if he ever finished it.
24. Ralph, at least, knew what he was talking about, and I think he is right insofar as he thinks the GOP will not “die.” But he’s wrong insofar as he thinks the GOP will stay the same and not die. It will change, and it will rise again. Marco Rubio was given by David or maybe Mickey as an example of a moderate Republican who could take back the White House, precisely because he’s a moderate. Laura’s response was that Marco Rubio isn’t a moderate. But no matter how many positions Rubio shares with his conservative colleagues (and Laura listed maybe one or two), Rubio’s position on immigration alone makes him much closer to the center than most Republicans. He is “mavericky” to borrow Palin’s ’08 neologism.
25. I have written too much, but I’ll add a summary to tie this together, because I think it’s important. Yes, the GOP does need to pivot, however slightly and carefully, towards the center, and that will require changes both to their policy platform and their rhetoric. No, the GOP does NOT need to move to the “50 yard line” in between the two parties; that’s just silly, and totally unrealistic anyway, and nobody’s ever suggested it. No, the GOP will not “die”, especially not at the local level (though the national battle will be much tougher, especially the White House, than I think conservatives like Laura Ingraham realize). Ralph Reed is a smart but somewhat confused libertarian-conservative; Laura was a typical Fox News personality, though she did try to appeal to what she perceived to be a progressive audience; David Brooks is the exact same guy who writes his columns; and Mickey Edwards is one of the most thoughtful conservatives I’ve ever seen. Despite their differences, all were nonetheless generally respectful (except for Laura’s loud interruptions).
Despite how annoying Laura was, and despite the fact that this was a debate between four conservatives and I’m not a conservative, this was one of the more enjoyable IQ2 debates I’ve heard lately. Maybe that’s because I enjoy watching conservative in-fighting, but I don’t really think that’s what it is. There really is hope that the Republican party will not always have as low an approval rating it has right now — that it will sooner or later come to more closely represent and better serve its country — and that possibility came across, however haltingly, throughout this debate.