If you have been involved in the Republican Party for any length of time, you have been called a Republican In Name Only. If you haven’t attracted that slur, then you must not be very active, because virtually any action taken by any given Republican is considered treasonous by some other Republican. It’s ridiculous. It’s unproductive. It needs to stop. The term has devolved into nonsense.
Case in point: yesterday I authored an essay suggesting that the Republican Party needs statesmen to lead it from the wreckage of this election cycle toward a viable future. I defined statesmanship as persuasive leadership, both on the campaign trail and in the craft of government. Statesmen serve without taking anything for granted, earning the trust of both allies and rivals, and leveraging those qualities to secure policy consistent with their values. This stands in contrast to the dominant mood of party politics at the moment, which has been characterized by assorted attempts at coercion. “Vote our way or there will be consequences” is a weak argument, both logically and morally.
Reading the piece, a friend raised an objection. His comment was indicative of many others. He wrote:
I’m sorry Walter Hudson but your definition of “statesman” is more like a “sell out” then someone who has principles. With this definition, we would definitely have too many “statesmen” in Washington. You seem to forget that the left plays politics by “shock and awe” and compromise is usually a one sided affair. Reagan found this out and said that trusting the Demoncrats was one of his biggest regrets. Ted Cruz has no friends because he calculated that the outsider would be the one to beat [in this] election and he was right, only Trump stole that moniker from him and he lost. Cruz was smart enough to know that your “statesman” got us into TRILLIONS of debt by having NO principles they wouldn’t sell and the American people were sick of it…
There’s a lot to unpack there. I’ll forgo the question of whether Trump has any principles worth supporting, or whether being “the one to beat” in the primary means much if you can’t win the general. Suffice it to say, my friend’s comment can be addressed with a simple counterpoint. We don’t get to control other people.
I’m going to write that again, and ask you to pause and consider why it is relevant.
We don’t get to control other people.
This is why campaign promises are largely rubbish. When a candidate says he’s going to enter office and accomplish X, the best he can deliver is a good-faith attempt to persuade their cohort. We don’t elect kings. We elect officials who serve in particular offices with defined limited roles. When you elect Congressman Jack on the platform that he’ll repeal Obamacare, he must first secure the cooperation of a his colleagues and the president. That’s how our system works. The problem is, much of the time, there is no such agreement. That’s because other people get elected on different platforms by voters with divergent opinions. Recognizing that, and acting accordingly, is not “selling out” your principles.
It seems silly that this needs to be said. But it clearly does. We don’t get to control other people.
In a free society, we deal with each other through persuasion. Force is off the table. We can’t tell other people what they must do. We can try. We can scream. We can yell. We can hurl insults and launch arguments from intimidation. That may work in the short term, but it does not secure lasting cooperation. Productive working relationships require consent, and governance in a republic requires productive working relationships.
That is a point which Donald Trump and too many of his supporters refuse to concede. They have approached the general election as though winning the Republican primaries entitled Trump to votes in the general. It didn’t. No candidate is entitled to a vote. He or she must earn votes, each vote, individually. To do so, they must persuade.
The same applies once in office. The president of the United States has no constitutional ability to legislate. Individual members of Congress can do little on their own. All these folks need to cooperate to get anything meaningful done, and that requires persuasion. That’s why we need statesmen, men and women who can lead others to their positions.
My friend points out that the left deals in “shock and awe.” He points out that Democrats cannot be trusted to make deals in good faith. Those are true statements, but change nothing about how the process works. That is merely the context in which politics occurs. We have to deal with it! We have to work in spite of it. It’s not fair, and it never will be. Since when has anything been fair?
The way we use the term RINO has made the term thoroughly meaningless. If by RINO we mean anyone who recognizes the need to arrive at a majority consensus, then of what use are non-RINOs? Of what use is the one guy who won’t work with anyone else? In a republic, the answer is none.
My friend mistakenly regards compromise as abandonment of principle. He can be forgiven, because that stance has become the default in grassroots politics. We’ve become a nation of ultimatums. Every hill must be died upon, or those elected become traitors to the cause. It’s ludicrous, and sets us up for failure. You can’t die on every hill and retain a force to take hills! This environment we activists have crafted places our elected Republicans in an impossible situation. They have no room to employ strategy, no room to negotiate, no opportunity to persuade, because anything less than absolute adherence to every trivial expectation will get them labeled RINO and targeted for primary.
Of course we should hold our elected officials accountable. But we need to adjust the expectations that we hold them accountable to. As things stand, in this political environment, statesmen are not welcome. I’ve seen it at the state and local level. I’ve seen good people with solid principles and tremendous character driven out of politics by insane responses to basic statecraft. They either get primaried by some lunatic who makes ridiculous promises they can’t keep, or opt not to run again after concluding there’s no point. We get the government we deserve. If we build our politics around hair-trigger ultimatums, we’re going to get politicians who for one reason or another accomplish nothing. Indeed, that’s all we’ve gotten for the past two decades! If all these ultimatums and witch hunts were actually going to produce results, don’t you think they would have by now?
The idea of statesmanship should not evoke the term RINO. The fact that it does signals much regarding the mess we find ourselves in today.