The coming GOP Civil War
The GOP, November 3rd
Like the Democrats during the 1970s, today's GOP is hidebound and out of touch.
By Benjamin Wallace-Wells
This has been the summer of Republican discontent--a rare moment of finger-pointing and introspection after some in the party began to examine the sum product of four years in power, and concluded that, judging by their own principles, the GOP should have done much, much better: In late May, the libertarian Cato Institute hosted a conference on the legacy of the Republican revolution of 1994, a decade later. Dick Armey, the retired House Majority leader who helped engineer the 1994 takeover, was the keynote speaker, and he was decidedly glum. The party, he said, has reverted to "doing the wrong things so we can get reelected to the right thing." Newt Gingrich, who followed Armey, told the audience that their revolution had reached a tipping point in the late 1990s, when it had traded in ideology for interest groups. These were criticisms that Gingrich and Armey had been voicing privately for months, but such a public airing had a bracing effect. "When you want to talk to people outside of government to get perspective on how you're doing in terms of conservative principles, you talk to Gingrich, you talk to Armey, and maybe there's a third guy, but I can't think of him right now," a senior aide to a conservative Southern congressman told me in August. "People paid attention." Within a month, the floodgates seemed to open. The right-wing pundit Robert Novak wrote a June column blasting "runaway spending" by Republicans in Congress. In a July speech before the National Press Club, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, often described as a possible '08 presidential candidate, tore into his party for a legislative attitude where "nothing can get done unless every Congressman has something to take back to his district." Meanwhile, on the Hill, internecine squabbles had stalled major legislation on energy, tax reform, and highway funds. The Wall Street Journal, interviewing House Speaker Dennis Hastert about the legislative logjam, caught him in a contemplative mood: "The American people don't want us pointing fingers," he told the paper. "They want us to do something."
Yet as Congress closed shop for the summer, divisions between Republicans had meant the House couldn't pass a 2005 budget, a depressing signal of failure. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who disapprove of the job being done by Congress, which had been hovering around 40 for the past five years, leapt to 52. Several polls taken in the spring and early summer showed that voters preferred Democratic positions to Republican ones on every single domestic policy issue. And the grinding, bloody fight in Iraq had some of the war's strongest GOP proponents throwing up their hands in disgust at the administration's failure to plan for the post-Saddam occupation. Indeed, by late summer, a few Republicans who could politically afford to--such as retiring Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.)--were openly questioning the wisdom of the whole venture, as were a majority of the American people.
With John Kerry still leading most campaign polls, conservative despair began to take on a more hysterical tone, and epic scope. "The era of small government is over," warned David Brooks in The New York Times, shortly before the Republican national convention. "We'll let slip a thinly disguised secret," wrote Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard. "Republicans are supporting a candidate that relatively few of them find personally or politically appealing." Even Pat Buchanan, in his vampy style, warned of a coming "civil war" within the party.
Such open hostility subsided during the GOP convention, damped down by the balloons and the president's rising poll numbers. Still, the summer's feud was like a peek inside a volcano: It offered a glimpse of the eventual eruption. The attacks on the party and its leaders came, scattered but forceful, from all parts of the GOP; though most critics shared a bill of complaint, each faction had its own recipe for salvation. The Armey-Novak conservatives wanted the party to renew its commitment to the small-government principles of 1994 and 1980. Brooks and the moderates looked to 1904, to the strong government conservatism of Theodore Roosevelt. Both groups were wishing for a kind of soul transplant: If the party could just reclaim its essence, they hoped, the current drift might be resolved.
But both of these historical analogies are hopeful fantasies about what the GOP might someday become, not reasonable guesses at the near future. The truth is, for all its apparent strength, the modern Republican Party has worked itself into a position of profound and growing decay. Worried Republicans are right to look to the past to help sort out their future. But the right date isn't 1994 or 1904. It's the late 1970s--and the party to look at isn't the Republicans, but the Democrats. Like the Democrats of that period, the current version of the Republican Party is supremely powerful but ideologically incoherent, run largely by and for special interests and increasingly alienated from the broader voting public. Today's GOP is headed for a profound crackup. The only questions are when, exactly, the decline will start--and how long it will last.
The Republican Mondale
Of course, Carter and Bush are not necessarily bound to the same fate, in part because of their very different personal characteristics. Carter was a micromanager who, while president, famously drew up a schedule for the White House tennis court; Bush says he doesn't bother to read the newspapers. Carter governed by consensus and was prone to abrupt policy changes; Bush makes snap judgments and rarely changes course. But the greatest difference between the two, and the one with perhaps most enduring consequences, lies in their attitude towards the self-destructive, retrograde tendencies within their own parties.
Jimmy Carter fought against his party's worst instincts, lost, and in losing made himself look weak. His failure to win reelection convinced his party's liberal wing not that they should have been more open to Carter's reforms, but that they had been right all along. In 1984, Democrats rejected the progressive centrist presidential bid of Gary Hart in favor of liberal stalwart Walter Mondale, who in turn chose as running-mate a liberal New York congresswoman, Geraldine Ferraro, to form a ticket that carried one state in 50. By 1988, the Democratic landscape started to shift; the party nominated a pragmatist governor, Michael Dukakis, and a conservative Texas senator, Lloyd Bentsen, as his running mate. But Dukakis, tone-deaf on crime and defense, fit too easily into a right-wingers' caricature of a Northern liberal, and he, too, lost badly. It wasn't until 1992 that the party finally put a Southern centrist, Bill Clinton, at the top of the ticket. And it took Clinton eight years of cajoling and fighting with his party's liberal base (who put up big fights over welfare reform and the president's fiscal conservatism) to put the Democrats more-or-less squarely behind moderate policies. Changing a party takes time.
By contrast, George Bush has embraced his party's worst instincts, thereby winning its support and making himself look strong. This image of strength, plus an ineffective opponent, might be enough to win him reelection. But ironically, a Bush win will have the same effect on the GOP as Carter's loss had on the Democrats: It will convince the ideologues that they were right. For that reason, moderate Republicans who truly want to take back their party must secretly hope--indeed, many do--that Bush loses.
A different kind of GOP isn't hard to imagine, at least in the abstract. In The New York Times Magazine last month, David Brooks sketched out a reasonable vision of what he calls "progressive conservatism." Brooks wants the GOP to embrace a slightly larger government, to value balanced budgets as highly as low taxes, to stop doing so many favors for business, and to focus on entitlement reform, national service, improving teacher quality, and promoting marriage in the ghetto. This is the vision of the Republican Party that belongs chiefly to its rump reformist wing: John McCain, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and others. It's not a bad platform, and Brooks is probably right that the Republicans would command more votes and run the country better if they hewed more closely to it.
But there are two problems with this vision. First, Brooks's "progressive conservatism" is far closer to the majority Democratic position than the Republican one. Second, it is almost impossible to see the current GOP accepting it any time soon, even if Bush loses in November. A Bush defeat--especially if it is accompanied by Republican loss of the Senate--would certainly lead to some version of the "civil war" Pat Buchanan and others have warned of. In that war, McCain and other moderates will enjoy some "I told you so" authority. But it is hard to exaggerate how weak, small, and out of step the moderates are with the rest of the party machinery--even with those who are furious with the GOP leadership. It's hard to imagine Tom DeLay waking up in January and suddenly deciding to become a champion of bipartisanship. Dennis Hastert and Bill Frist are probably not going to stop giving business lobbies the run of Congress--with two decades of history and habit pointing them the other way. The Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation are not likely to abandon the low-tax/small government agenda that lured all of their scholars and is written into their bylaws. Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh aren't suddenly going to turn into reasoning pragmatists, even-handedly comparing economic models and different proposals for school reform. Perhaps most importantly, with virtually all of Congress running for reelection in politically safe districts where they need only draw the votes of stalwarts, it's hard to imagine GOP voters insisting on an immediate, rapid change in ideological direction.
Political parties don't abandon their most cherished ideas, break with their most powerful interests, or dump their most entrenched leaders for high-minded civic reasons. They do so only when they lose elections again, and again, and again. And if history's any guide, that is going to be the eventual fate of today's Republican Party.
The reason I brought up the 1997 UK election last week was that no one expected the landslide victory and resulting collapse of the Tories.
The Tories are bitterly divided between Euroskeptics and Pro-European factions and remain a distant hope to regain power.
Instead of looking at polling, one needs to ask a basic question: how many Gore voters are voting for Bush? That's the question that the polling doesn't show and the critical one. Not many.
The article points out a feeling I've had for a couple of years. That Bush was the last Republican president for some time. Mainly because the GOP's ideas have been tried and failed. All that is keeping them together is a quest for power.
The press is not noticing that safe GOP seats are under real pressure this cycle, like South Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida. This should indicate that the playing field is changing, but they don't seem to get it. A lot of formerly GOP seats are now competetive.
Even if the Dems only pull off a few, this cannot bode well for the GOP.
If there was a mistake, it was not standing up to Bush. Because the Bush family places loyalty in such stark terms, those who were "disloyal" were under attack. Their instincts have been wrong, over and over. And no one will say it. Like Rove's constant pandering to the base. He seems to have forgotten that he lost in 2000. Now with a polarized electorate, a potential of massive voter turnout and a miserable performance in the debates which alienated voters, Bush is still courting a base not large enough to win. Without large numbers of Gore voters crossing over, the question is not if he's defeated, but the scale of the defeat.
Even a Bush victory is unlikely to heal the divisions between the fiscal conservatives and religious extremists. Because when you think the Rapture is coming, then it's kind of hard to focus on social security.
A Bush defeat, which is far more likely, would truly set people on each other, especially with the loss of one House of Congress. Bush's campaign has done little to help candidates, while they have been forced to help him. The Martinez campaign is an extreme example of this and his switches may well cost him the election, especially with a high, contested, turnout. Bush sucked money and did nothing to support candidates among the grassroots. The Dem 527's have done a great deal to push candidates and GOTV, while the GOP hasn't quite caught on.
Here's an example: I get tons of e-mail from campaigns and 527's, and one lonely letter from the Bush campaign. The GOP has been outworked and outspent on the ground in a lot of places. Now, if this was a good economy at peace, John Kerry would be going back to the Senate in January. But it isn't. There is a general reluctance to criticize the President in public. A lot of people who won't speak ill of him do not want him around for a second term. But like Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truamn, it is like George Bush will be replaced as a war time president. Why? Because the Bush campaign never made their case to independents and moderates in both parties. And the Anti-Gay progrom could well cost not only a desperately needed 1m votes, but drive up gay votes for Kerry.
If the GOP had been smarter, they could have targeted these groups with appeals. But they didn't. Their entire campaign was to make people think Kerry was weak, but that didn't work when they stood side by side.
While some reporters will say, if Kerry won, that was where he won it, they will be wrong. Bush never had real lead. He was always under 50 percent even in flawed polling. There was no backup plan, no sense of reaching beyond the base, even in their tightly scripted and controlled rallies. It was the political equivilent of an ad campaign for New Coke or Crystal Pepsi. It had no soul.
The right blogosphere keeps looking to create a Republican version of Daily Kos, but how is that possible when disagreements on right blogs ends with being banned and the largest right blogs are either freak shows like Frei Republik, or don't engage the reader with comments like Instapundit.
If they were to start one, the arguments would fly fast and furious.
Bush has been like the last of the Roman Emperors before the Empire split. He's trying to manage a failing organization without the moral strength to do so. His power is imperial and it is not transferrable. Can anyone imagine Bush post-presidency playing the role of a Al Gore or Bill Clinton? Can they imagine him serving as an elder statesman?
You can bet if Bush loses this election, the next GOP candidate will not be John McCain, but someone to his right and someone completely out of touch with America. HE will keep the party faithful happy, but few others. Because it will take two or more defeats for the GOP to understand that they must change. This pandering to racists and religious lunatics is not enough to keep control of Congress.
Bush can still win if things break his way. That will only delay the inevitable bloodletting.
posted by Steve @ 2:26:00 AM