Go small, or go home

The Republican convention will, no doubt, be long on politics and short on drama, but at least we will be able to stop using the word “presumptive” when referring to Mitt Romney.

Although conventions aren’t exactly used for picking nominees any longer, the Republicans might use their time together to decide what kind of party they’re going to be.

Alexis de Tocqueville believed that there are two different kinds of parties—some are great and some are small.

Great parties, he wrote in his seminal Democracy in America, are “those that are attached more to principles than to their consequences; to generalities and not to particular cases; to ideas and not to men.” Then there are small parties, which are “generally without political faith.”

If the Frenchman came to America in 2012 rather than 1831, he might say that we have one of each kind.

Whether it’s Christianity or capitalism, the Republican platform over the last 30-plus years has become more about purity than pragmatism and more about ideas than individuals.

In terms of picking a candidate, for example, they typically nominate the next in line—Dole, McCain (in 2008), Romney. Even Ronald Reagan had to wait his turn. Bush’s leap over McCain in 2000 is the exception that proves the rule.

For their part, Democrats fit more with what Tocqueville calls a small party. Their appeal comes from particular individuals and particular circumstances. Consider how Carter, Clinton, and Obama each came out of nowhere to take the nomination and win the White House.

The problem is that an established and stable democracy has little use for great parties. “America has had great parties; today they no longer exist,” Tocqueville observes.

There was a time when we argued about nullification, slavery, and the national bank, but the differences between the Federalists and Anti-federalists were made insignificant when Jefferson came to power.

Richard Hofstadter, in his American Political Tradition, first published in 1948, chronicles “a unity of political and cultural tradition,” related to our faith in property rights and economic competition. That has not changed. Indeed, the three last major public policy accomplishments (TARP, the stimulus, and the Affordable Care Act) were all attempts to protect that tradition, not undermine it.

The main task for the next administration will be figuring out how to turn the economy around, not found a republic.

Yet it makes perfect sense that the Republicans are thinking big, given the change in demographics and the erosion of their base.

There would be no need for panic if the country were really becoming more conservative, as it’s often said. The Democrats would be the ones scrambling for votes. But the country is getting more libertarian—that is, economically conservative and socially liberal. Rather than seizing the libertarian moment, the GOP has treated its in-house standard-bearer, Ron Paul, as an existential threat and have done their utmost to discredit and diminish him.

Much was made over the thin Republican bench and how Cain, Perry, and Gingrich each took their turn as the non-Romney frontrunner. But it’s impossible that a great party could also find a great candidate.

Polls have been showing that a generic Republican beats Obama—by 5-8 points. On one hand, it’s an indictment of the cool feeling toward Romney that he’s running so far behind the party label. On the other hand, no specific Republican beats Obama.

According to his “Bread and Peace” model of presidential elections, political scientist Douglas Hibbs gives Obama 47.5% of the popular vote and losing. Meanwhile, Nate Silver, running all the public opinion data, gives Obama a 50.1% chance at winning.

The numbers on the economy and Obama’s job approval point to an easy Republican victory, were it not for the contortionism required of its nominee. Romney did what he had to do to secure his party’s nomination, and his party doesn’t like him for it. He is the generic Republican—and he’s still losing.

Number crunchers have noted the greater level of excitement and engagement among Republican voters, but the “enthusiasm gap” only matters if the election is close.

Obama’s favorability ratings are nowhere near as high as they were when he assumed office, but they have consistently run ahead of his policies. In other words, he’s dragging his party with him, rather than be dragged down by it, as we see with Romney.

The last two Republican presidential runs have included an established party leader who’s selected as his VP a lesser experienced and more ideological partner to square the Republican circle. Adding a very conservative upstart from the House might have surprised some, but given the state of today’s Republican Party, it’s hard to see the selection of Paul Ryan as anything other than fated.

With that pick, Team Obama sees an opening in trying to make the election as a choice between two vastly different views of government, rather than a referendum on a disappointing incumbent. But if the president is reelected, it won’t be because Democratic ideas are better; it’ll be because the Republican Party is trying to have a big party in a small tent.

“We have got to be open,” Bob Dole told The Daily Telegraph of London. “We cannot be a single-issue party or a single-philosophy party.”

On NBC’s Meet the Press, Jeb Bush said the same thing.

The situation for the Republicans is different at the state and local levels, where governors are required to balance budgets and legislators deal with more specific constituencies. They don’t have the luxury of ideology. And it could be from there that the Party is saved.

In either event, the GOP needs to right its ship—and quickly. Our two party-system needs two small parties. There are too many pressing public policy challenges for our already divided system to do the heavy lifting with a phantom limb.