This week the world’s attention turns to Washington D.C. for the undoubtedly historic events of next Tuesday, but many seem to be overlooking a large and important sub theme that is developing concurrently. What is the current state and future direction of the vanquished Republican Party? Do the Republicans intend to emerge as a principled opposition group, do they plan on reverting to the “me-too” organ of the 1970s, or are they simply preparing to be flattened by the Obama-Democratic juggernaut? Sadly, for conservatives, the last of these options seems to be, at this point, the direction that the GOP is heading.
When attempting to gauge the current Republican drift it is useful to employ a certain historical perspective. The Republicans suffered a similar thrashing in 1992. This analogy, while not perfect, does show some parallels to the GOP debacle of 2008. First of all, the Republicans lurched into the autumn campaign in each year led by a lackluster candidate. Each time the Party elders insisted, quite correctly, that the candidate was a certified member of the “Greatest Generation”, a true war hero and a decent and honorable public servant. Unfortunately, for the Republican faithful their candidates excited no one, offered an empty vision, and crafted no coherent message. By contrast, in 1992 and 2008 the Democrats offered a perceived superstar in training and emphasized the youth and glamour of their nominee, shrewdly contrasting their supposed vigor with the tired, haggard, and worn GOP headliners. Also, in 1992, as in 2008 the Democrats skillfully hyped an economic downturn to their advantage, realizing that the Party out of the White House usually escapes blame for such difficulties. Finally, in each year the Republicans had to contend with a hostile media, while the Democrats and their television, newspaper and magazine allies shared a very public romance.
The similarities mentioned here culminated in stinging defeats for the Republican Party on the election days in 1992 and 2008. The Democrats won clear victories, if not landslides, in each of the two elections. Admittedly, the entire Republican ticket did better in 1992 than they did last November 4th, but a loss is still a loss.
The major differences between the Republicans of sixteen years ago and the modern version can be seen in their reaction to defeat. The 1992 electoral rebuke energized the Republican Party like a cold water dousing. The Party began to recruit and train promising candidates, and they placed a human dynamo named Haley Barbour in position as their national chairman. Barbour rallied the base, established new channels for fundraising and candidate recruitment, and turned out to be the best Party Chairman since Mark Hanna in the late 1890s. Most importantly, the GOP “idea factory” went back into business and, with the active assistance of the Washington think tanks, was soon operating at full capacity.
Compare the 1992-93 Republican renaissance with the Party today. Most Republican incumbents are shell-shocked and defeatist. The Party cannot seem to recruit attractive candidates at the national level, cannot settle amicably on a national chairman, or develop any considered strategic response. Some of the Party officials are also gripped with a growing sense of foreboding that demographic factors and long-term trends are turning inexorably against the GOP. This fear is not unfounded and might constitute the gravest threat to the Party’s continued existence in the coming years.
Observers can see evidence of Republican combat fatigue on all fronts. A good example is the fact that few nationally prominent Republicans have fought for Norm Coleman in Minnesota. When the Party does not see fit to contest the theft of its Senate seats does it really deserve to win? Likewise, the Party leaders chose to largely ignore Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton’s ethical shortcomings and spousal baggage in last week’s hearings and they do not appear inclined to fight over Treasury Secretary- nominee Timothy Geithner’s problems concerning the tax and immigration status of his domestic employees.
The Republican to settle on a chairman and to decide on a message is also problematic. This is not indicative of a healthy and necessary debate taking place within the Party. It is, instead, a sign that the main factions within the larger entity are at each other’s throats in a mindless internecine brawl. Moreover, the fact that the Party cannot unify around an emerging dominant figure seems to suggest that they are running short on new talent.
Finally, the sense of gloom that many GOP strategists detect which is almost Spenglerian in nature, does exist. This is not simply the media generated parlor game whereby amateur pundits lament the Republican failure to appeal to youth, women and minority voters. In 1996 National Review published a celebrated article predicting that demographic factors and long term voting trends were working in tandem and creating a “Coming Democratic Majority”. Obviously, they had taken the title of Kevin Phillips celebrated 1968 volume about a developing Republican majority and turned it around. The article warned Republicans that numbers alone were turning against the Party. This did not take place between 1996-2004, but might actually have begun in 2005. Was 2008 an aberration, or is the GOP suffering a decline that will doom it to a nearly permanent minority status circa 1932-1978? Only time will tell.
In the immediate future the Republican Party must realize that they have a role to play as the opposition. They must approach the current situation as they approached the incoming Clinton machine in 1992-93. They must adopt a vigorous platform and offer bold, constructive alternatives to the warmed over socialism the other side will serve up. Combine the bold ideas with the correct messengers, engage the Democrats in a political war of ideas and let the chips fall where they may. This might turn out to be the winning formula for The modern Republican Party.