By Ken Feltman
You cannot teach an old dogma new tricks.
Years ago, I decided that if a telling comment was not from the Bible or Shakespeare, odds favored it being from Dorothy Parker. Parker wrote for Vanity Fair and then for the New Yorker and co-founded the Algonquin Round Table in 1919. The Round Table included, among others, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Harpo Marx, Edna Ferber, Robert Sherwood, Margaret Leech Pulitzer, Charlie MacArthur, Herman Mankiewicz and George S. Kaufman.
Saucy and irreverent, she shocked and amused readers. But when people read what she wrote, they laughed, winced and often thought, “how true.”
- “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
- “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
- “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” (A drama critic in New York remarked that after Parker wrote that, he began to notice more young women groping their way along, eschewing glasses and risking the consequences.)
Now, 45 years after her death, her prolific, biting wit sums up the current state of the Republican Party better than any contemporary talking head. No living pundit is her match. The moment you read her comments, you know she is right. In the present case, she even tells us what to do to fix things.
Look where the old dogma got us. Parker has a witty, if sad, way to describe the Mitt Romney-led slaughter:
“This was not just plain terrible,
this was fancy terrible.
This was terrible with raisins in it.”
The Romney voter turnout program was called ORCA, after the killer whale. This orca had no bite, the pollsters had no clue, the consultants had no coordinated plan. This was terrible with raisins in it.
So what to do? First, ignore the current leadership of the GOP. Parker has summed up their ability to get anything done:
This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly.
It should be thrown aside with great force.
Enough of the talking-head bloviating. Rebuilding the GOP is going to happen only if people pitch in and do it from the ground up. The rebuilding must happen despite the oblivious leadership.
Do they like being losers?
You would think they want to lose, the way they avoid anything that might help them rebuild the party. No, they would rather win, but they are demonstrating that they do not know what to do. So how can Republicans get new leaders? That is not so easy. The current leaders like being mired in their chumminess and little intrigues. They have no idea how incapable they are at leading the GOP in these times. Parker had a poem for them:
“If I did not care for fun and such,
I would probably amount to much.
But I shall stay the way I am,
Because I do not give a damn.”
The national chairman of the Republican Party just made a visit to Iowa to talk about “inclusion and expanding the party.” His visit illustrates his clueless nature. It never occurred to him that a by-invitation-only meeting, attended exclusively by people from the well-to-do inner circle, is an unlikely place to make progress toward inclusiveness.
Here is what I Tweeted about the meeting: GOP chair to INVITATION-ONLY guests at Iowa GOP HQ: We need new strategy. I heard from a lot of angry Republicans, mostly of the how-could-you? and which-side-are-you-on? variety. But I heard from more who identified themselves as current or former Republicans and agree with me, many noting in different ways that they feel alienated by the GOP today.
When does the inclusion start and the exclusion stop? Not when a man like former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) comes along and expresses his concerns. Watts ran one of the most efficient, friendly and helpful offices on Capitol Hill before he retired from Congress. He attacked problems head on. He still does. After the election last year, he sized up the GOP problem of attracting minorities, as he sized up defenses when he quarterbacked the University of Oklahoma football team to championships. Here is what he said:
“The fact is, it is hard to have perspective and it is hard to have diversity, with women or black or red or yellow or brown or white, if you have no relationships. How perplexing this is if we think we can get people to vote for us if we do not know them.”
Apologists for the current GOP leaders reacted quickly. First, they defended the leaders of the current calamity. Then they carpet-bombed Watts and anyone else who dared challenge the leadership in the wake of November. They threw raisins everywhere. One of the leaders whined that “outsiders do not understand” how hard it is to attend “all the meetings.”
Yes, all those raisin-filled fancy meetings with other raisin-filled fancy and so-very-important people. Sadly, going to fancy places for fancy meetings may be just about all they can do. They cannot seem to grasp the depth and breadth of the GOP problem. So they will do what they do, and we must admit, they are pretty good at exclusion, whether intentional or inadvertent.
Late last year, I was asked by one of the current GOP leaders which “groups or people” I would try to include in the Republican Party. “All of them, everybody,” I answered. His eyes widened and I caught what might have been the beginning of a smirk: “You want all of them?” “Yes,” I said. “We don’t need all of them,” he growled.
Ah, here was a man who wanted to appeal to just enough to win some elections. That strategy is less threatening. It means the party does not have to make as many changes, just enough to be competitive. I went on offense. “If having a broad appeal seems to be too big a job right now,” I said, “I will settle for not repelling so many people.” He narrowed his eyes and shook his head negatively as he moved away.
I had gone too far and asked too much of that man. He has a more orthodox, and narrower, vision of the GOP. It is the “inclusionists” who are outside the mainstream now.
Watts spoke clearly: How can Republicans expect the votes of those they do not know? No party can expect votes from people who feel alienated. This is not 16th century Europe, when a leader could conquer a territory and force the inhabitants to adopt a new religion. When will the leaders of the GOP think about this? When will they conclude all the by-invitation-only meetings and meet some disenchanted voters?
For now, the answer from the Republican leadership comes with all the wistfulness, ambivalence and cynicism of Parker at her most neurotic. Her lifelong answer to everything she did not want to do was a simple one:
“Oh, I thought we did not have to.”
Republicans: You have to.
This dogma will not hunt. Get a new dogma.
(Full disclosure: Feltman is chair of his local Republican Party in Falls Church, Virginia. A different version of this article was published at Politico prior to the Iowa meeting.)