Wouldn’t it be great to have an actual opposition party? Maybe we can, if state Republicans are finally willing to make a resolution to be relevant.
It feels so futile to make resolutions on New Year’s. Real change usually requires a shove from outside, or some kind of driving need instead of a halfhearted promise. When we’re feeling like things are going fine, we tend to just keep going along.
The Republican Party in this state is doing just that right now, even though they’re in the middle of a deep crisis that has been going on for well over a decade. They last won the governor’s office in 2006, and their numbers in the legislature have gone from bad to worse to now merely mediocre. They lost the three congressional districts they held before 2006, and they haven’t come close to winning a U.S. Senate seat since they drove Lowell Weicker out of the party. They couldn’t even knock off an unpopular governor during one of the most Republican-friendly years in memory. That’s how bad things are.
What have they been doing about it? Pretty much nothing. Recently, they chose Jerry Labriola Jr. as the party chair again, even though his tenure has largely been marked by running and re-running clueless rich people from Fairfield County for offices they aren’t remotely qualified to hold.
Right now, though, could be a time of renewal for Republicans. They have new leaders in the House and Senate and a membership enlarged by a Republican-leaning electorate. They know that a lot of people in the state are still not particularly happy with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the somnambulant Democrats who control the legislature, and they know that a lot of voters still want to see more visible action on the state’s stagnant economy. Republicans could take the lead, and present themselves as credible, serious alternatives to Democrats.
Unfortunately, because of how our system works, they can’t.
The trouble is that Republicans are caught in a trap made by the increasing need for ideological purity in modern American political parties. Connecticut Republicans are by fiscal and organizational necessity an extension of the national party. While there is some wiggle-room between states, they are all tethered to, and defined by, the national GOP’s “brand.” For Democrats, it’s the same way — they do well in Connecticut not because they’re competent, but because the mix of culture and ideology associated with national Democrats fits better with people around here. In states like Texas and West Virginia, it works the opposite way.
That leaves us in a bad place. Gov. Malloy can hand out raises to political appointees while a fiscal crisis looms, hire a former Democratic Party official to run the Consumer Protection department, and undermine campaign finance protections without any real opposition holding him accountable.
So what do the Republicans need to do? First, they need to get it into their heads that Connecticut doesn’t want pieces of what they’ve been selling for years and years. The majority don’t want huge service cuts or tax cuts for rich people, a minimalist government, or punishing, conservative social policies.
What we do want is better management of money, less corruption, a responsive government that actually works, and economic revival. These are areas Democrats have been lousy at for a long time.
But in order for Republicans to really make any headway on these issues they need make fundamental changes. Ditch the national party. Open up primaries to everyone. Stop taking big bucks from shadowy conservative PACs. Stand up to the national party when they do awful stuff. Listen to everyone, not just the echo chamber. And, most importantly, bring in new people who represent the diversity of this state.
The problem is that change is painful — especially when you’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time. I could probably eat better and exercise more, for instance, but I’d have to change some fundamental things about the way I live my life to do that. It wouldn’t be fun. I’d be miserable for a while, before things started to improve and I got used to it. It’s the same for Republicans. It won’t be easy, and it’ll be painful. But that’s what it’ll take.
Republicans have to be brave, and they have to look around them and deal with the state as it is, not as they might wish it was. If they do that, they might have a chance of being relevant again.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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