Tuesday, October 22, 2002
And now, a couple of words about the New York gubernatorial race and what it says about the health of the Democrats and the GOP in the Northeast. That's right: I'm going to get on my hobby-horse again.
The national GOP is convinced that the liberal northeast must be written off. This is truly, deeply stupid, for three reasons. First, writing off any huge region of the country is stupid. Why give the other guy comfort? Second, in writing off the northeast, the GOP writes off a whole host of groups and their issues who could be promising GOP targets. Such as: urbanites, immigrants, non-whites (I recognize there's some overlap here). And these groups are increasingly important outside of the northeast. By ceding the region, the GOP makes it tougher to make the case to the same groups of people in the Midwest or the Pacific coast states. And when you write off those regions, well, you're back to that red-and-blue map of the 2000 election. Which is not where you want to be. Third, writing off the northeast threatens to make the GOP a regional party (centered in the South and Mountain States) which, in turn, causes the GOP to betray its principles. How? Because a regional party will always be more beholden to narrow sectional economic interests than will a broad-based national party. The GOP has gotten increasingly shaky on free trade because it keeps losing some of the most pro-trade constituencies: the economic regions of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The only solid pro-trade GOP region is the farm belt, and the farm belt is in favor of open markets, not free ones; it's very happy to suck at the public teat through subsidies so long as it can sell wheat around the world. Hence the catastrophic farm bill. The GOP should not be ceding the high ground on economic matters. But they are getting nibbled to death because they have not been able to expand their base beyond the core - and while that core is expanding, it just isn't enough.
But finally, the biggest reason why writing off the northeast is stupid is that the Democrats of the northeast are a disaster. And you don't have to look any further than New York to see it. In 1988, when Mario Cuomo ran for re-election, he walked to victory over a divided opposition that split its vote between the GOP and the Conservative candidate, neither of which was a serious contender. Now, George Pataki is coasting to victory over an opposition divided between Carl McCall and Tom Golisano. No one can figure out if Golisano is running to Pataki's right or McCall's left (because Golisano keeps changing his pitch; his only goal is to come in second, and it doesn't matter how). But what's clear is that the vulnerable candidate is not Pataki but McCall. And this is in a state with an overwhelming Democratic advantage.
Why is McCall vulnerable? Not because he made phone calls to help relatives; if his base were excited about him, that wouldn't matter for an instant. But his base isn't excited. He's not beholden to the far-left ideologues or the racial thugs who control part of the Democratic base. And Pataki has given him little room to pander to the unions (again, some overlap here) who control another part of the base (more on that below). The party machinery could still deliver the nomination to him against the stunningly awful Cuomo kid, but they can't deliver the state.
The Cuomo-McCall contest was, in many ways, similar to the Green-Ferrer primary contest for mayor: an abrasive and stupid white liberal against a time-serving and innocuous non-white liberal. In the mayoral race, Ferrer played the race card hard, and almost took the nomination from Green; because of the nastiness of the primary, Green was unable to win in the general election. In the governor's race, McCall let the race card speak for itself, and didn't make an issue of it publicly, and the machine delivered for him (and, to be fair, for other reasons, like the fact that McCall had loyally served his time and that Cuomo was an obviously awful candidate). But McCall has been getting it coming and going, because he's not a "race man." If he had lost, black voters would probably have punished the victor who knocked out the black candidate. But now that he won, he's getting punished for not being black enough. In any event, the similarity between the two contests is that in each case the Democrats have destroyed their own nominee through ideological and racial litmus testing, leaving the field open for a Republican win in an overwhelmingly Democratic city and state.
There is a reason why Republicans are going to retain the statehouse in New York, may retain it in Massachusetts, and may capture it in Maryland. These are overwhelmingly Democratic states, and the Democratic Party in these states has gotten ossified and inbred and deserves to lose. The GOP has made hay out of these victories in individual contests, but hasn't translated it into an institutional presence in the northeast. And I believe that's because no national GOP leader has been ready to build on the Giuliani achievement and build a northeastern Giuliani wing of the GOP. It would be a wing devoted to urban issues, and focused on a simple message: we are the only party competant to govern. The Democrats will spend all the money on absurd ideological projects. We will focus on economic development, improving the schools, cutting bureacracy, cutting taxes, and improving the quality of life. I don't think the GOP in the northeast should be a "Rockerfeller Republican" party; I don't think the opening is for RINOs. In fact, I think the RINO phenomenon is the result of the GOP's lack of attention to the region; the assumption is that the only way to win is to be a "me-too" and so no thought is really put into developing a coherent alternative message. It's a lot easier for Pataki to win re-election by coopting the unions than stretch himself and try to tackle, say, the education monopoly, or rent control. But these issues matter, and there's a downstate opening for a party that spoke to these issues. If you want a blueprint for what the northeastern GOP could be, read CityJournal, the publication of the Manhattan Institute. You'll find an occasional piece there about abortion, or gun rights, or other issues that work well for the GOP nationally. But you'll find a constant stream of articles about effective policing, and freeing up the housing market, and rebuilding downtown, and bringing competition to education, and liberating urban entrepreneurs from stifling regulation. This stuff matters, and you'd be surprised how many liberal urbanites who would never dream of voting for someone who they considered a "gun nut" or a member of the "religious right" would consider voting for a party that actually promised to govern and improve life, in stead of fighting about race or about obscure ideological issues. Maybe the GOP should do what Minnesota's populists did many decades ago, and call themselves something else (the Farmer-Labor party), only loosely and belatedly affiliated with the national Democratic Party. But one way or another, we've got to get moving on building an actual party in the northeast, and not just a shell to be filled by this or that candidate taking advantage of Democratic folly and weakness for a single election cycle.