Are Democrats Concern-Trolling the Republican Party?

Republicans are right to distrust the motives of Democrats bearing advice. But they're too quick to cast out their own internal dissenters.
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Ever since their 2012 debacle prompted an ongoing round of public handwringing, Republicans have not lacked for advice. The Bushies weigh in on how to win elections; the Tea Party is on guard against another moderate presidential nominee; the right-wing wonks stand at the ready, armed with new policy ideas. And then there are the well-meaning liberals, some of whom have been generous enough to offer their own prescriptions for what ails the GOP.

This last group has some conservatives suspicious. After all, do Democrats really want a Republican Party that has revived and reformed and figured out how to win again? Wouldn't they rather keep winning elections against a disarranged, directionless opposition?

Commentators on the right have begun to call out such dubiously motivated leftist commentary as "concern trolling," the Internet term for people who disingenuously express pity for those they really disdain. When Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas penned a column for The Hill about the demographic shifts facing the GOP, The Weekly Standard's Jay Cost declared, "Concern-trolling of GOP has officially jumped the shark." To be fair, the tone of Moulitsas's column was less concern than gleeful schadenfreude. (In the course of my nonpartisan reporting on intra-GOP debates, I have been accused of concern-trolling myself.)

Why should down-and-out Republicans take pointers from their political conquerors? It's a fair question, so I have put it to some of the concerned Democrats I've interviewed in recent months. David Axelrod, the Obama campaign mastermind who is now an NBC pundit, freely acknowledged his partisan conflict of interest: "I welcome all this turmoil from the standpoint of winning elections," he told me after a lengthy conversation about the GOP's plight. (His advice for Republicans: Tack to the center, champion immigration reform, adopt more progressive economic policies.)

But Axelrod said he had a higher interest, too. "From the standpoint of governance, it's not a healthy thing," he said. "I actually would like to see a functioning national Republican party. The dynamic that exists now is a formula for gridlock."

Many Democrats I've had this conversation with have made a similar case. William Galston, the Brookings Institution scholar who was instrumental in reforming the Democratic Party in the 1980s, had much the same answer when I interviewed him for a recent Atlantic article about the Democratic Leadership Council. "In the long-term national interest, we need two competing political parties, each of which is saying something relevant to the country's future," he told me. "If one party is the party of the future and the other is the party of the past, you're not going to have much constructive debate. Republicans are in danger of becoming the party of the past." (Galston also said he was too old for partisan tricks: "I'm 67 years old. I'm not an expert about many things, but reinventing a party in trouble is something I'm an expert in. I'll give good advice to anyone who's not the devil.")

I believe this line of reasoning is a sincere one. I think these Democrats really do want to see a healthier, more future-oriented GOP, even if it means their side wins fewer elections. I don't think Axe et al. are engaged in a clever false-flag operation to hoodwink conservatives by giving them terrible advice. But it's also the case that the functioning Republican Party these Democrats envision would "function" by being more open to pursuing Democratic policy goals. There would be less gridlock because a more moderate GOP would be more willing to compromise. We would have two parties that agreed in principle on the need for federal legislation to tackle such issues as health care, climate change, and immigration, but differed on how to achieve those goals and found a way to meet in the middle. To the extent that conservatives don't agree with Democratic policy goals to begin with, they're correct to see "fixing gridlock" as code for "making it easier for Democrats to get what they want politically."

Fortunately for Republicans, they don't have to listen to Democrats. There are plenty of voices within the party who earnestly want it to win more elections and have ideas for taking it in a new direction. Too often, though, would-be reformers who call themselves Republicans are also accused internally of not having the party's best interests at heart -- of hating conservatives and merely wanting to cozy up to liberal coastal elites, for example. It's that kind of purifying, disqualifying impulse -- the idea that anyone who isn't a rigid ideologue is a "Republican In Name Only" -- that's served to progressively narrow the GOP coalition in recent years, turning the onetime big tent into an ever-smaller bunker. So fine, don't take political advice from David Axelrod. But maybe Republicans should pay a little more heed to people like David Frum.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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