I’m on Twitter a lot late at night, and I was there when the Courant’s Capitol Watch account tweeted that Larry Cafero was giving a “Morning in Connecticut” speech as the new fiscal year arrived. He was, apparently, channeling Ronald Reagan.
I rolled my eyes. Reagan again. This, I thought, is one of so, so many problems with modern Republicans: they constantly look backwards to a past that never quite existed, instead of forward.
Republican big ideas are similarly stuck in the past, and that’s another problem. The stubborn belief that a huge deficit can be fixed with spending cuts alone is just as silly as the trope on the opposite side that raising taxes on the rich is the magic bullet. In fact, Republican economic and fiscal ideas haven’t evolved since Reagan’s 1980 campaign: cut spending, lower taxes on the rich, fire public employees, loosen regulations, make government smaller, and somehow everything will work out just fine. It doesn’t work, of course. It’s nonsense. If this kind of thing really did work we’d be swimming in prosperity right now instead of suffering through yet another economic slowdown. They cling to it anyway.
Come on. Give me something new.
Connecticut Republicans, I noticed that your party elected a new chairman this week. Good for you! The old chair wasn’t cutting it anymore; all he seemed capable of doing was getting his party’s relatively small base riled up, getting on TV and lobbing verbal bombs at Democrats and the media. The Republicans in general seem to have become an awful lot meaner and more pessimistic lately. Nobody wants anything to do with a party that does nothing but sneer and predict doom; that’s the sort of nonsense Republicans did in the 1930s and mid-1960s, and look how well that turned out. The past can be instructive, sometimes, too, if we’re willing to learn from it.
What about this new guy? Jerry Labriola Jr. made a couple of clever ads referencing Internet memes during a quixotic run at Rosa DeLauro, and otherwise seems like a nice guy. He emailed supporters the day after his election calling for unity and striking a more optimistic and level tone than the caustic, snarky Chris Healy. That’s not bad for a start.
Another thing the new chair needs to do is ditch the idea that getting more conservative will somehow make the party more appealing to voters. Yes, turning right excites the base. But we saw the limits of that in 2010. While the Republicans pushed up turnout and picked up a handful of legislative seats, they fell well short of what they might have accomplished. Case in point: if the Republicans had nominated the moderate Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele instead of Greenwich businessman Tom Foley, they would likely have kept the governor’s mansion.
Look, it’s simple. Parties consistently win when they convince independent and moderate voters to take a chance on them. This has always, always been true. John Rowland did it, and so did Jodi Rell. Pumping up the base with the kinds of horrible attacks, fear-mongering, and outright lying pundits like to call “red meat” can work sometimes, but when the base is vastly outnumbered it’s not a great recipe for success. Why should moderate independents and conservative Democrats take a chance on the Connecticut GOP right now, when they seem to be becoming more and more like the national Republican Party? Republicans need to find their way to the center, pronto, or they’ll continue to be irrelevant.
Why do I care? Here’s why. This has been a lousy week. It started with massive layoffs in the state workforce and finger-pointing among rival Democratic factions, and it looks like it has ended with the governor getting broad budget-cutting powers (at least temporarily) and even more layoffs. Collective bargaining reforms passed the Senate, though the House hasn’t taken them up. It’s the kind of week that rattles everyone. Through it all I’ve been wondering if Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has finally gone off the rails entirely, and what the end result might be once the special session ends. In the background, following the disastrous rejection of the concession deal that sparked this week’s mess, the state employee unions seem paralyzed and broken.
So of course, the Republicans give us Reagan. I’ve found more than one blog wondering which GOP chair candidate Reagan would support, for instance. I’m not even surprised. But Connecticut doesn’t need Reagan. We need something new, we need ideas that are for now instead of 30 years ago. We need a real way forward that isn’t just pro-business or pro-worker, but pro-Connecticut.
The Democrats who have held the legislature for most of a generation are floundering trying to come up with one. If they can’t, we’re going to need a viable alternative.
So come on, Republicans. We’re waiting.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.