Is the party over for the Republicans?

In this summer of 2009, it is hard to exaggerate the Republican predicament.
Out of fashion, out of power, and above all out of ideas, the party of
Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan now counts as its most
recognisable national figure a somewhat flaky, soon-to-be-ex-governor of
Alaska named Sarah Palin, of few discernible political talents other than an
inordinate ability to attract press attention. You may compare that
predicament with that of the Tories after Labour had swept them from power
in May 1997. Not only had the Republicans been in power too long; by last
November’s election, the country had grown as bored of them as Britain had
of the Conservatives a dozen years ago. Both, moreover, had to cope with a
charismatic new challenger: it may be hard to remember now, but Tony Blair
once generated an excitement comparable to Barack Obama today.

Like the Tories, the Republicans portrayed themselves as defenders of
old-fashioned, traditional America, only to suffer a string of sex scandals
which exposed them to ridicule. Even now, they might have surrendered power,
but not the capacity to embarrass themselves. In the past month alone, a
couple of rumoured contenders for the 2012 nomination ? John Ensign, a
right-wing “family values” senator from Nevada, and Mark Sanford,
the equally conservative governor of South Carolina ? have been exposed as
philanderers.

Ensign, it emerged, had an affair last year with a campaign worker, then his
parents made a “gift” of almost $100,000 to her family. But that
transgression paled beside the Sanford melodrama. When the governor went
AWOL last month, aides at first claimed he had gone on a solitary walking
trip in the Appalachians. A few days later he re-appeared to admit at a
tearful press conference that he had actually been in Buenos Aires for a
tryst with a former Argentine TV journalist with whom he had fallen in love.
For now, both men are clinging to their jobs, but any lingering claims by
the Republican Party to be a beacon of moral rectitude are in ruins.

In some ways, the Republicans are in an even deeper hole than the Tories a
dozen years ago. The debacle of John Major’s “Back to Basics”
campaign obscured the fact that he bequeathed to Labour a stable and
expanding economy. ‘ Last autumn’s financial crisis and the current
recession in the US, by contrast, were mainly brought about by a Republican
free-market philosophy run wild. The Crash of 2008 was a failure not just of
economic management but of an anti-interventionist, “grab what you can”
ideology that had dominated American politics for decades.

Even more than 1997 in Britain, 2008 in the US will surely go down as a
watershed year, like 1932, when the harsh reality of the Great Depression
and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal ended early-century Republican dominance.
The Democratic era that followed eventually disintegrated amid the turmoil
of 1968 and a feeling that liberalism was running amok. But the subsequent
conservative era in the US, with Ronald Reagan its patron saint, has ended
in its turn ? its fate sealed not just by the shortcomings of George W Bush
but a deeper sense that it had nothing more to offer.

These eras were not monolithic: Dwight Eisenhower provided an eight-year
Republican interlude in the heyday of the Democrats, while Democrats Jimmy
Carter and Bill Clinton occupied the White House when the underlying tide
was running in a conservative direction. Neither, however, reversed that
tide. Carter was a one-term president elected mainly in reaction to
Watergate, while Clinton was a master of compromise, or “triangulation”
as it would be known, who did not shake the pillars of Reaganism. Indeed, a
fair portion of the deregulation that brought about the 2008 meltdown took
place on his watch.

But it is Republicans who are now paying the price. Ever fewer people identify
with the party. A recent Gallup poll found that only 28 per cent of
Americans considered themselves Republicans, compared with 36 per cent who
described themselves as Democrats ? the widest such gap in a quarter of a
century. The independents who constitute the other third of the electorate
lean in the Democrats’ direction.

America’s political geography has been transformed. Democrats today control
not only the White House, but both chambers on Capitol Hill. In the Senate,
Democrats have achieved a theoretically filibuster-proof majority of 60 for
the first time in 30 years (Republican senators, in other words, will find
it far harder to derail a bill with endless speeches from the floor). The
country’s electoral map has been similarly transformed. Democratic states
have expanded from both coasts into the Midwest, and into the South. In the
2008 Presidential election, the states carried by John McCain were
essentially a giant L, its base stretching across the deep South into Texas
before turning north across the plains and Rocky Mountains to the Canadian
border.

Ideologically, too, the Republican coalition has splintered. The party still
does well in the sprawling suburbs. It remains the party of big business,
identified with limited government and strong national security. But the
so-called “Reagan Democrats”, appalled by the anything-goes
liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s, are now returning to their old fold.

The attention lavished on social conservatives and social issues was
increasingly at odds with the national mood. The endless “culture wars”
over abortion, guns and gays mask the fact that Americans are pragmatists,
not ideologues. Yes, the US is more conservative than Britain. But the
Republicans moved too far to the right, and in the process lost touch with
the real America, a country that is multi-ethnic, increasingly
university-educated, and much more exercised by the everyday problems of
jobs, healthcare and education than by the issue of whether gays should be
allowed to marry. Democrats used to walk in dread of Karl Rove, George W
Bush’s top political strategist, who was boasting as recently as 2004 of a
permanent Republican majority ? even though Bush’s narrow victory that year
was above all a triumph of organisation. Five years on, the prospect is of a
permanent Republican minority.

It is easy to mock that Saturday morning at Pie-tanza. The “listening”
part was real enough, as a mostly Republican crowd vented its frustrations.
But the answers from the three participants ? the former Massachusetts
governor Mitt Romney, the fast-rising Virginia congressman Eric Cantor, and
Jeb Bush, younger brother of George W ? were notably short on specifics,
consisting mostly of slogans and platitudes you hear at a campaign debate.

And that was probably no coincidence. At least two of the three will surely
figure in the contest for the Republican nomination in 2012. Romney, a sleek
businessman who projects managerial competence, is already running in all
but name, undeterred by his defeat by John McCain last year. Sharp-elbowed
and clever, Cantor is only 46 but already the second ranking Republican in
the House of Representatives. The Pie-tanza meeting was his idea. As for Jeb
Bush, he was a highly successful governor of Florida. Affable and
undogmatic, he remains very popular within the party. His problem, of
course, is national Bush-fatigue. With any other surname, he might well
already be the Republican frontrunner.

But if the road to redemption begins with the admission of sin, the trio at
least made a start. As Bush put it, “The Democrats have something. I
don’t like it, but they have it.” It was time, he said, for Republicans
to stop trying to turn the clock back to the vanished golden age of Reagan,
and to look to the future.

Alas, there are two conflicting visions of that future. As they survey the
electoral rubble around them, the party faces an excruciating and critical
choice. Does it become more moderate? Or does it move even further right ?
reasoning that the Republicans’ mistake last year was not that they were too
conservative, but that they were not conservative enough? No political
species is more detested by conservative true believers than RINOs ? “Republicans
In Name Only” ? whose lack of conviction is held to have played into
Democrats’ hands.

In fact, and for the reasons outlined above, Republicans have no choice but to
move towards the centre, if they aspire to be a party of government rather
than a minority cult. In a democracy ? be it the US, Britain, France or
anywhere else ? elections are won and lost on the middle ground, populated
by independents and other swing voters. Republican policies must appeal to
these people, not just the loyal base. As Jeb Bush, whom no one would
consider a RINO, said, “You can’t beat something with nothing, and the
other side has something.”

But if the answer is obvious, the process of reaching it will be long, painful
and divisive. One reason is institutional. Unlike Britain with its
parliamentary system, America only has a true leader of the opposition for a
few months in a presidential election year, between the emergence of a
nominee and the election itself.

John McCain forfeited that role when he lost to Obama. The most senior members
of the Republican hierarchy are Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, minority
leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives respectively. But both
are legislative tacticians, not electoral grand strategists. The party has
no shortage of attractive figures: among them Bobby Jindal, the young
governor of Louisiana and the first Indian-American to occupy a state house,
and Jindal’s peer in Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty. There’s Newt Gingrich,
architect of the sweeping Republican victory in the 1994 Congressional
election, and never short of ideas, then there’s Cantor.

And, of course, there’s Sarah Palin. If social conservatives alone selected
the nominee, Palin would win by acclamation. The star power she first
displayed with her barnstorming speech as McCain’s running mate to the 2008
convention is as strong today. The fevered speculation over her future,
following her surprise resignation as Alaska’s governor this month, merely
confirmed that whatever else, she’s news.

Whether Palin definitely plans to run in 2012, fancies making big money on the
book and lecture circuit, or simply yearns for the quiet life, probably she
herself does not know. But one thing may be stated with confidence: the
Palin future, barring a quite inconceivable political makeover, does not
include the Republican nomination for President, let alone the White House.
Republicans may have lost their bearings, but not entirely their senses.
Polarising, and with scant appeal beyond the right, Palin offers Republicans
merely a one-way ticket to irrelevance.

Whatever she does will, moreover, not alter the fact that the party has no
official leader, no David Cameron to take charge of the remaking of the
party. Into this vacuum, others have stepped. For a while earlier this year,
the loudest Republican voice in the land belonged to Rush Limbaugh, the
sneering and bombastic talk-radio host. Then it was the turn of Dick Cheney,
taciturn and secretive in his days as vice-president, but who for a few
weeks this spring seemed to be on every cable channel in his new persona of
battle-hardened elder statesman, excoriating Obama as a feckless novice
whose squeamishness on torture and tolerance of rogue states were an
invitation to terrorists to do their worst.

But Cheney is even more unpopular than his old boss (who, by the way, has
moved into a new house in a smart neighbourhood of Dallas, where he’s
keeping a low profile and writing his memoirs). He is the Republican past,
not the Republican future. In the absence of agreement on what that future
can be, the party of opposition is doing what comes naturally ? opposing
Obama and everything he says and does.

Alas, this makeshift policy merely underscores the Republican dilemma. The
refusal to compromise with Obama, the branding of the president as a
dewy-eyed liberal, naturally delights the conservative-dominated base. But
the polls ? for the moment at least ? suggest these spoiling tactics are
exactly what voters feel is not needed when the country should be closing
ranks to tackle the huge problems it faces. Every party, it is said, needs a
spell in opposition, to find new energy and ideas. Barring an Obama mess-up
of epic proportions in the next couple of years, or another 9/11 or
equivalent foreign cataclysm, Republicans cannot realistically look to
recapture the White House until 2016 at the earliest.

Already, though, the outlines of a new Republicanism are discernible. The most
promising, and obvious, area is the economy. Americans are still enchanted
with Obama the man, but less so with his economic policies. They dislike the
bail-outs of the car industry and are deeply worried by colossal budget
deficits stretching to 2020 and beyond. After the reckless tax-cutting and
heavy spending and tax-cutting of the Bush era, Republicans have a golden
opportunity to regain the mantle of fiscal rectitude and competent financial
management.

On social issues, the party must become more inclusive. Many of its
strategists already recognise that being a Republican and supporting one or
all of gun control, gay civil unions, stem-cell research and a woman’s right
to choose are not mutually exclusive. Social conservatives will disapprove.
There will be furious argument. Yet those same conservatives ? and Christian
conservatives in particular ? are as alarmed as any liberal by global
warming, climate change and the degradation of the environment. A less
dogmatic Republican Party, more open to minorities and sensitive to their
problems, will also be a greener Republican party.

Of course the party will not shed its trademark toughness on national security
and defence. It will instinctively prefer the private to the public sector.
It will be the party of individual rights and individual responsibilities.
It will be healthily sceptical of state intervention, but will abandon the
Reagan mantra that government, far from being the solution to America’s
problems, was the problem. In short, it will return to being what it used to
be: a “big tent” party, competing with Democrats across the board.

To do this, of course, they will have to make some Democratic policies their
own. But what is so wrong or unusual about that? After all Bill Clinton, the “new
Democrat”, stole Reaganite policies, most notably on welfare reform, to
the dismay of his party’s left. Tony Blair embraced elements of Thatcherism
as he turned Labour into an electable party again. And now David Cameron is
filching some of Labour’s clothes as he hauls the Tories into the 21st
century.

In the meantime, Republicans must be philosophical. Every political party
outstays its welcome. Americans will tire of Obama-ism and the Democrats as
they tired of liberalism after the 1960s, and have tired of Reaganism now. “This
won’t last for ever,” Jeb Bush put it that day in Arlington. “I’ve
seen conservatives move up and conservatives move down, liberals move up and
liberals move down.” Obama’s astounding rise was “a tribute to our
country” from which Republicans should take heart, he added. “That
will happen to us, too.”

With friends like these…

Rush Limbaugh

The radio talk-show host and de facto voice of grass-roots social conservatism
has been a highly vocal critic of President Obama’s attempts to reignite the
US economy. In January, he said Obama “is talking about the absorption
of as much of the private sector by the government as possible, from the
banking business, to the mortgage industry, the automobile business, to
healthcare. I do not want the government in charge of all of these things…
I hope he fails.” Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele
said Limbaugh’s rhetoric was “incendiary” and “ugly”
(though he later apologised to Limbaugh for his remarks).

Dick Cheney

In May, after President Obama reiterated his intention to close down the
Guantanamo Bay detention centre, former vice-president Cheney tore into his
speech, accusing Obama of compromising CIA interrogation techniques and
claiming he was jeopardising American security. The outburst was widely
criticised, not least by senior Republicans including former presidential
nominee John McCain. “When you have a majority of Americans saying we
shouldn’t torture, I’m not sure it helps for the [former] vice-president to
go out and continue to espouse that position,” said McCain.

Pat Buchanan

A fortnight ago, the 70-year-old former senior adviser to President Reagan was
invited on a current-affairs programme to explain his antipathy toward
Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court, the Hispanic Sonia Sotomayor.
Buchanan had criticised her nomination as an example of “affirmative
action”. He was asked to explain why 108 of the 110 Supreme Court
justices have been white. “White men were 100 per cent of the people
who wrote the constitution, 100 per cent of the people who signed the
Declaration of Independence, probably close to 100 per cent of the people
who died at Normandy,” he said. “This has been a country basically
built by white folks.”

Audra Shay

Earlier this month, Shay, 38, the chairman of the Young Republican Party,
responded to a Facebook posting in which an acquaintance, Eric Piker,
referred to the need to “take this country back from all of these mad
coons” with the comment, “You tell em Eric! Lol.” Shay
defended herself by claiming she was responding to an earlier posting on the
page, and stated that she did not “condone racial slurs”.

Sophie Vogel

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