Thursday, November 06, 2008

the future of the republican party

Talking about the Republicans after this election reminds me of the fellow who was writing a book about the Israeli Labor party. "Hope you're planning a short book," a friend advised him. The situation right now certainly looks bleak, but forever is a long time.

In discussing the GOP one must distinguish between the long and short term. The short term is perhaps less bad than many think. Despite a perfect storm of an unpopular president, a horrendous economy, and an opposing campaign that outspent them 4:1 or 5:1 in key states, the Republicans lost by 6-7 points nationally and suffered an electoral defeat not appreciably worse than those of the 1990s. The margins in congress (House 255-174, Senate 57-40 awaiting Georgia, Minnesota, Alasks) are a good bit smaller than the party endured in the 1960s and 1970s, although there were far more conservative Democrats then. If Obama stumbles, which is to some degree inevitable, there remain grounds for a comeback.

The problem is how they got there. One of the most amazing statistics to come out of Tuesday was that the Republican Party managed to lose nearly 400 electoral votes while carrying at least two states (Oklahoma and Wyoming) by more than 30 points, and West Virginia--historically one of the most Democratic states--by 13. This does not suggest a party victimized by economic circumstance but one which is on the losing side of a cultural divide, able to compete quite well in areas that remain politically and culturally where they were in the 1980s but unable to do so in areas that don't. An example of the latter phenomenon is the Philadelphia suburbs. At least three formerly Republican congressional districts here are now so securely Democratic that the incumbents did not even bother to spend most of their campaign funds. At my own precinct many voters, especially women, will not accept materials or make eye contact with a Republican poll worker, even with regard to local candidates (we've given up pushing the national ones). For them the GOP is not merely a minority party; it has ceased to be a serious competitor, at all.

Compounding the geographic problem is an age one. Voters under 30 broke for Obama by a 2:1 margin. Such categories are admittedly fickle: people don't stay young forever, and there's no guarantee they'll vote the same way, or even vote at all, next time. But the people approaching voting age don't look much more promising. At my son's school debate, blogged earlier, the McCain kids were almost 100 percent white: the Obama kids were twice as numerous and far more diverse.

Fixing this is hardly rocket science. The party needs to come back to the middle and start emphasizing issues--tax and education reform, alternative energy and environmental policies, a 21st century foreign policy--that appeal to middle class Americans, while simultaneously expanding its base to include far more women and minorities than is presently the case. This is eminently doable, and has been accomplished by conservative parties in other countries (Britain, Canada, etc.) that often fell far lower than their American counterparts.

The problem is that the current leadership is ill-suited to this transition, and--with the defeat of numerous moderates in the last two cycles--is if anything more conservative than before. Two of the names frequently mentioned, Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal, are highly charistmatic but tied strongly to the religious right and to regions where the party is already strong. They will argue, not without reason, that they have been winning with their current approach: why should they take advice from people who continue to lose?

It may be, as David Brooks has suggested, that a party has to lose three or more elections before it makes fundamental changes. That is what happened to the British Conservative Party and the Democrats themselves, who were drubbed in 1980, 1984, and 1988 before they began coming back to the middle. But the Republican base is much stronger than the Conservatives', and (unlike the Democrats) they are not accustomed to being out of paper. My guess is they will turn around more quickly, but it won't be an easy process, and it won't be over anytime soon.


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