The Indiana GOP’s ‘Issue Problem’

November 14, 2011

Many years ago, when the Indiana Republican Party was something, when it had a voter-turnout apparatus on which even the bland candidate could depend, I was let in on the secret.

Over lunch, a legendary outstate county chairman told me he never raised the Big Issue* if he could help it, that serious idea capable of exciting otherwise laconic factions.

When a Big Issue is raised, he patiently explained to the young idealistic editor, voter turnout increases, especially among certain segments of the Democrat base but also, and even more troublesomely, among that element of the GOP moved by constitutional awareness, economic sense or moral imperative.

In other words, stay away from anything that might rile either the marginally employed or casually principled.

The ideal match up, rather, was between candidates representing competing but unthinking, sedate mobs. It was a battle that the Indiana GOP, with its dedicated and skilled door-to-door registration, was organized to win.

It worked well until the mid 1980s. It was then that our late friend Jim Knoop, one of the most astute of Indiana political consultants, issued a warning to this membership: The GOP apparatus was dead; it had died along with the politically awarded license-branch franchises — that and the spread of apolitical suburbia.

Knoop accurately predicted that what would be left would be competing campaign headquarters. Gone would be the mismatched, party-wide battles between that famed GOP apparatus and an only ragtag bunch of Democrat activists. It would become a war of money, wits, sound bites, character assassinations and scare tactics — a war that the old GOP chiefs, with their abhorrence of open endorsement and slating, would gradually lose.

There it is, in my most inexpert and perhaps cynical opinion: the reason the Indiana GOP’s scorecard has been so mixed in recent years. It is not because of any particular attraction for Democrat ideas but rather the fact that in an era of huge and historic issues Republicans never raise any.

As a result, problems in our town never get discussed let alone solved — not, at least, until a tax increase or government action is the only “reasonable” solution available. How many times have you heard the local Republican officeholder explain in effect that “the government made me do it”?

The party today is run by men and women who feel uncomfortable with the Big Issue. They have even forgotten (or were never told) the anachronistic rationale for avoiding it.

Thus, in this latest mayoral elections in my city, the Republican lost despite a low turnout and artful avoidance of any Big Issue. There is no exit polling at our level, but some of us are convinced that the principled Republicans (the Tea Party) were never engaged and stayed home.

The better strategy, ironically, would have followed the example of one of the goodest of the good old boys, former Gov. Robert Orr.

I asked “Bob” (he liked to use the diminutive during election campaigns) how he managed to map a Republican career path from his base in Democrat Vanderburgh County to the Statehouse. His answer was slating, the specific and often courageous endorsement of issues and candidates.

That is not as obvious as it sounds. The incentive of most chairmen, every political sinew of them, is to build power and longevity in office. That rules out making a new crop of enemies every election cycle by picking one primary candidate over another and by dividing the rank-and-file with contentious planks.

The result is a local party of pap and hype, if not cronyism. A friend, a member of this foundation, constantly and perfunctorily targeted by GOP fundraising campaigns, has become resigned to this:

“Politicians at the local, state and national level are merely lying to us, motivated by their own greatest good, which is reelection via the charade that they actually have a whit of understanding as to what is going on, and an even smaller notion of how to respond, be it by any motivation other than the aforementioned desire for reelection.”

It is a matter of party health, then, that at least the local leadership regularly submit to a referendum in the form of spring primaries. Yes, it’s a bad deal for the chairman, whose position would be weakened if he backs a loser. It’s a good deal, though, for the Republican Party and ultimately our constitutional republic, on whose name it rides. — Craig Ladwig

* The “Big Issue” for purposes here would be along the lines of repeal of the Collective Bargaining Act, passage of a right-to-work law, elimination of local economic-development schemes, effective budget review and the like.


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