The Big Question: Are the Republicans becoming a force once again in US politics?

Author: By Rupert Cornwell

Why are we asking this now?

Today sees the first elections of significance in the US since the election of
Barack Obama, who tomorrow celebrates the first anniversary of his own
historic victory, recapturing the White House for the Democrats after eight
years of George W Bush. And for once, Republicans are set to win something.
Every sign is they will easily regain the governorship of Virginia, a state
which in 2008 Obama became the first Democrat to carry in 44 years. The
contest in New Jersey, the other state choosing a governor, is much closer.
But a Republican win would be notable in a state that has been trending
Democratic for a decade. Taken together, the results will inevitably be
portrayed as a referendum on Obama, and a Republican double would be widely
interpreted (in the Grand Old Party at least) as a national thumbs-down for
a President whose approval ratings have already dropped to the mid-50s.

But would it be?

In reality, no. But in politics perceptions are all. This is what in American
politics is termed an “off-year”, without either a Presidential
election or mid-term Congressional elections. As a result, turnout in both
Virginia and New Jersey will be low. The Obama administration has all but
written off Virginia, where the Democratic candidate has waged a poor
campaign in a state which makes a habit of electing Governors from the
opposite party to the one that holds the White House. New Jersey is a
different matter. Obama has campaigned extensively for Jon Corzine, the
incumbent Democrat (and a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs). If Corzine
loses ? and final polls give his Republican opponent Chris Christie a narrow
lead ? the White House will naturally insist it’s business as usual. But
Republicans will be take a Democratic loss as proof that Obama’s personal
star-power no longer suffices to win elections on its own.

So have Republicans exorcised the George W Bush factor?

Up to a point. The last president left office with some of the lowest poll
ratings and a collective national (and international) heave of relief. But
nine months is an eternity in politics. Team Obama still blames the previous
administration for the country’s woes; the country however no longer sees it
like that. This is now Obama’s economy ? 10 per cent unemployment and all.
In the public mind, Iraq remains very much Bush’s war, but the ever more
unpopular Afghan conflict now belongs to Obama. Equally, Republicans had
sunk so low under Bush in the 2006 and 2008 elections, that they had nowhere
to go but up. In fact the party has corrected none of its underlying
problems. It has yet to come up with convincing new leaders. Even more
important, it remains intellectually bankrupt, bereft of new ideas.

So who are the brightest Republican stars?

As might be expected, name recognition from the recent presidential campaign
counts for most right now. With John McCain out of the picture, the three
most popular Republicans nationwide are McCain’s two closest challengers for
the 2008 nomination: former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt
Romney of Massachusetts. Then of course there’s the polarising Sarah Palin,
whose forthcoming memoir Going Rogue is already bestseller on Amazon, even
though it doesn’t hit bookstores until 16 November. Tim Pawlenty, governor
of Minnesota and strongly considered by McCain as running-mate, is also a
factor while some see Bob McDonnell, the telegenic Republican candidate for
governor in Virginia, as a budding national figure. But an indication of how
bare is the cupboard right now is the talk of former House speaker Newt
Gingrich, yesterday’s man if ever there was one, as a possible 2012
candidate.

But aren’t all of the above strong conservatives?

Indeed they are (with the possible exception of Romney) ? and therein lies the
problem. In today’s confused Republican landscape, only one thing is clear:
the party is moving to the right. The reasons are various; among them are
increased partisanship in Washington and jerry-mandered districts, which has
created ever safer seats. These days, the main danger for a moderate
Republican incumbent often lies in a primary challenge from the right. But
the result has been the near-extinction of Congressional Republicans in
places like New England, and reflex, near-monolithic Republican hostility to
any Obama initiative. Take health care reform, the most important of those
initiatives. The only Republican senator to back the proposal has been
Olympia Snowe, one of a dwindling band of party moderates on Capitol Hill.
She hails, predictably, from Maine in New England.

Doesn’t homogeneity make opposition easier?

In the short term, that’s probably true. Thus far Republicans (who tend in any
case to be more disciplined than Democrats) have held together remarkably.
They have been able to simply to oppose whatever measures are proposed by
the White House or the Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of
Representatives, and given the peculiar rules of the Senate, where any
contested legislation needs a filibuster-proof majority of 60 to pass, that
strategy could be enough. But in the mid-terms of 2010, and in the
presidential vote of 2012, voters will be looking for constructive policies
from Republicans, not the single destructive word, “No”. And in
the policy vacuum, the party is turning on itself.

But isn’t civil war a Democratic speciality?

Not right now. In essence, the Republican leadership is losing control of the
grassroots. The party on Capitol Hill may be conservative, but not
conservative enough for activists. The trend was evident in the rowdy health
care meetings this summer, in the “tea-party” anti-deficit,
anti-government movement sprouting across the country ? and most vividly in
today’s extraordinary battle for New York’s remote and rock-solid Republican
23rd Congressional District. Right-wing activists considered the official
candidate chosen by the GOP to fight the special election to be excessively
moderate, so they ran their own conservative one instead. Trailing in the
polls, the moderate Republican dropped out, and endorsed the Democrat. If
the polls are right, the 23rd District will today fall victim to a
conservative coup ? but a coup whose long term beneficiaries will probably
be the Democrats.

How come?

America may be a more conservative country than Britain, but as in Britain,
elections in America are won and lost in the centre of the political
spectrum. Red-blooded conservatism fires up the faithful; its relentless
hostility to big government flourishes when huge public policy issues like
health care and green energy dominate debate. But the net result may be to
drive independents and moderates to the Democrats. Take Sarah Palin: while a
minority of voters adores her, a large majority cannot abide her. That is
not a formula for long-term success. If they continue on their present
track, Republicans could be heading towards not a 1980-model Reagan triumph,
but a 1964-model Goldwater disaster.

Is the Republican recovery for real?

Yes…

*Americans are uneasy with Democratic “big government”, of huge
deficits and health reform

*The country is coming to believe that Obama’s foreign policy is a recipe for
weakness

*Republican support in 2008 fell to the bedrock. Disillusioned independents
will soon be drifting back

No…

Republicans are in a hopeless muddle, divided between realists and a strident
‘purist’ conservative faction

*The party has no new philosophy to replace the discredited supply-side, “trickle-down”
Reagan-era policies

*The party remains out of touch with young people, and the black and Hispanic
minorities

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