House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got in trouble with her party’s liberal activist wing this week when she vociferously extolled the benefits of a strong, less extreme Republican Party. “I want the Republican Party to take back the party,” said Pelosi, “to where you were when you cared about women’s right to choose and you cared about the environment.”
The irony of Pelosi’s comments inflaming Democrats is that it's doubtful she truly meant them.
Liberal Democrats accused Pelosi of sanitizing the sordid history of the Republican Party and, even worse, being naïve about the threat that the current version of the GOP represents.
The irony of Pelosi’s comments inflaming Democrats is that it's doubtful she truly meant them. A less extreme Republican Party — particularly one more liberal on abortion rights — would be much harder for congressional Democrats to run against in this year’s midterm elections. Republican extremism is, at least politically, a boon to her party. Pelosi is likely not thrilled about a Republican Party that acts like a cult and bows before the golden calf that is former President Donald Trump. But for now, that extremism provides some political upside.
The eruption of outrage ignores the fact that Pelosi’s argument has become a routine talking point among Democratic politicians since Trump’s ascendancy. The argument that Republicans need to return to what they used to be is made to contrast today's increasingly unhinged GOP with the slightly less unhinged one that used to exist. Joe Biden said it regularly on the campaign trail in 2020. The “fever will break” he said, and Republicans will go back to being a normal political party. Hillary Clinton frequently talked about it when she campaigned for president in 2016 and contrasted Trump with less extreme Republicans.
Cynics will argue, and not unreasonably, that the old Republican Party of Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove wasn’t any great shakes either. But that’s not the point. Pelosi and other Democrats who’ve previously made similar arguments aren’t interested in a debate about the various historical iterations of the Republican Party. They are trying to heighten the idea in voters’ minds that the current version of the GOP has lost its grip on the crazy tree and hit every branch on the way down.
But whether she means it or not, Pelosi’s underlying point about the need for a stronger Republican Party is actually correct.
A country with a two-party system needs two relatively normal political parties. America needs a Republican Party that is not beholden to a political lunatic who embraces authoritarian ideas that include shooting peaceful political protesters in the streets of the nation’s capital.
America needs a Republican Party that has a moderate, less extreme wing, and it needs a GOP that is willing to accept losing to Democrats. That’s not what we have now, and that’s a big reason why American democracy is in so much trouble.
Indeed, there should be nothing terribly controversial about what Pelosi said. In fact, if Democratic activists are as concerned about the degradation of American democracy as I’m sure they are, then they should embrace Pelosi’s words.
Democracies function best when its political parties are engaged in democratic competition and competing to win over the electorate with their policy ideas. The Republican Party, however, has become a political party that is devoid of ideas for governing the country. For all of Republicans’ complaints about rising inflation, they’ve offered few ideas on how’d they reverse the trend in higher prices. They assail Democratic plans to create a paid family leave program or extend health care, but their cupboard is empty when it comes to proposing alternate solutions. Things have gotten so bad that in 2020, the GOP didn’t even bother to draft a party platform. They just took their 2016 platform and changed the date.
In the same way that monopolies in business are bad, a political party that holds power forever and isn’t adequately challenged will become ossified and potentially corrupt. Democrats may want to hold on to power forever, but they need to lose every once in a while or risk falling out of touch with the electorate it’s supposed to serve.
Democracy relies on both sides accepting the political rules of the road.
Democracy also relies on both sides accepting the political rules of the road, abiding by basic democratic traditions and not shredding those norms because it narrowly furthers their political or policy ambitions. In 2016 when Senate Republicans refused to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, they violated a long-standing political norm and, in so doing, undermined the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.
They then added insult to injury when they rammed through a replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, an act that was philosophically incompatible with their blocking of Garland four years earlier. Wouldn’t the country be better off if the GOP, as it used to do, acknowledged that even if they don’t like a political and policy outcome that they have a responsibility to accept it?
Of course, a crucial element to competition is accepting that sometimes you win … and sometimes you lose. In 2020, Trump never delivered a concession speech and has refused to acknowledge that he lost to Biden. More than half the members of his party share that view. Would the country be in a healthier place if Republicans accepted the results of the 2020 election and cast out those who continue to repeat the lie that Biden didn’t win? Yes, unquestionably, even if Republicans continued to support policies that Democrats find abhorrent.
Political competition doesn’t rely on both sides agreeing on policy issues. If that were the case, then it wouldn’t be a competition. Instead, it relies on both parties acknowledging that sometimes there are things that are more important than party and tribe.
Indeed, the reason so many pushed back on Pelosi’s statement is that if Republicans win elections there’s little reason to believe that they will, as they once did, abide by basic democratic rules. Hence, there’s all the more reason for Democrats to want a Republican Party that looks a lot different than the current one.
Democrats may secretly appreciate today’s extremist version of the GOP even as they claim that they pine for a normal party. But ultimately, no one is served — and democracy is fundamentally weakened — by having a Republican Party that’s as extreme and anti-democratic as the one that exists today.