Bridges and skyscrapers are built to be flexible, so they can bend in the breeze. If they were too rigid, they'd collapse.
The Republican party has a rigidity problem right now. GOP leaders like John Boehner and Paul Ryan are trying to craft a unified message on the economy, the national debt, and the proper role of government that they hope will guide the GOP to important gains in the 2012 elections—if not helping them win the White House, at least adding to the Republican majority in the House and perhaps taking control of the Senate. The problem is that some of their leading candidates aren't adhering to the message. The platform is collapsing from its rigidity before the campaigns even begin.
Microphone magnet Newt Gingrich famously dissed House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's plan to scale back Medicare benefits, calling it "too big a jump" for the American people. Gingrich later apologized, sort of, saying he didn't really mean it, but he's not exactly the kind of guy who's unsure what he thinks. He really did mean it. Besides, he's probably right. Polls clearly show that Americans oppose steep Medicare cutbacks, even if tax hikes are needed to keep the beloved program more or less as it is.
Speaking of taxes, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, another possible presidential candidate, won't take the GOP oath and forever swear off the likelihood of raising them. That's a violation of orders from GOP HQ, which insists that taxes will never go up and in fact, must come down. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is another apostate, since he once supported cap-and-trade legislation, which is now policy non grata within the GOP. And the former Republican governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman, spent nearly 18 months as Obama's ambassador to China, an unfortunate lapse of bipartisanship he hopes voters don't remember.
Mitt Romney may have the most tarnished GOP credentials of all, because when he was governor of Massachusetts, he instituted statewide healthcare reform that's suspiciously similar to the 2010 Obamacare program that many Republicans want to repeal. That puts Romney in the ticklish position of defending his own plan, which remains popular in the Bay State, while trashing Obama's and paying homage to the Republican orthodoxy. But a lot of Republicans aren't convinced, and some have even labeled him with the unspeakable P word. (Progressive.)
Democrats are gleeful over all this discord, because it delays the ascent of a presidential frontrunner, makes fundraising more difficult for Republicans, and provides superb sound-bite material for campaign commercials that are sure to show Republicans contradicting each other. But this disagreement is good for the democratic process, and good for voters, too.
First, it demonstrates the severity of the problems that Washington politicians are going to have to address sooner or later—hopefully sooner. The mushrooming national debt is a time bomb that can still be defused if Republicans and Democrats work on doing it together, but it's guaranteed to blow up if the two parties keep dickering over which tools to use. This problem can't be reduced to a bumper-sticker solution anymore, because it's extremely complicated and gets worse the longer it goes unaddressed. Every politician in Washington knows it's going to take widespread sacrifice to get deficit spending under control. Republican disagreement over spending cuts and tax increases is a sign that politicians are coming to terms with this unhappy reality, and trying to figure out how to break the bad news to voters.
Paul Ryan's Medicare plan would impose severe cutbacks on retirees starting in about 10 years' time, because something big has to give before ballooning Medicare spending bankrupts the government. But Gingrich is also right—or was, before he retracted his criticism of Ryan's plan: Americans aren't ready for cutbacks on that scale. They're only now starting to hear policymakers talk about the need for some kind of change in a program they've long considered sacrosanct. It's going to take time for ideas that are new even among wonks in Washington to trickle into the public consciousness.
Daniels, who was George W. Bush's budget director, knows like everybody else that it will be nearly impossible to wrestle the debt under control without tax increases. Most politicians are still lying about this, but the math is incontrovertible: If Americans want to continue living in the kind of society they've enjoyed since the end of World War II, it's going to take higher taxes to pay for it. Spending cuts, too, but those alone won't be enough. To Daniels' credit, he's being honest with voters by refusing to rule out tax increases. If more politicians did this, we'd probably solve the problem sooner.
The Republican discord is also a move away from doctrinaire solutions that are far too rigid for the big, complicated problems they're often imposed upon. There are no one-size-fits all solutions for tacking the debt, fixing healthcare, and figuring out how to fund Social Security and Medicare as baby boomers swell the enrollment in those programs. Despite all the blue-ribbon commissions and the expert studies, it's going to take trial-and-error adjustments over many years to figure this out. Nobody else fixes problems by committing to one course of action and never veering from it. Families don't. Successful businesses don't. They adapt as more information becomes available and circumstances change. Elected officials need to do that, too.
Finally, the cracks in Republican dogma are a tiny hint that maybe bipartisan cooperation is possible after all. The Republicans are actually having a meaningful debate among themselves on several important issues, although they're cleverly disguising it as a food fight. If they can have bipartisan dialogue inside their own party, maybe they could do it with Democrats, too. A little flexibility might even strengthen their party.