Over the past 6 years, Republicans ruined their brand.
In the 1980s and 90’s, you knew what you were getting when you voted for a Republican: smaller and limited government, lower taxes, some type or another of “social conservatism,” restricting the courts’ power to their proper role, and a stronger America at home and abroad. You might not agree with every plank in the Republican Platform, but you pretty much knew what you were getting when you voted for Republican control of government.
Sure, there were tensions in the Republican coalition; social conservatives and libertarian-leaning Republicans often disagreed on specific issues, but the ties that bound the coalition together were much stronger than the disagreements over these issues. Despite predictions that social issues would tear apart the Republican coalition, I see little evidence to support that belief.
Grover Norquist has named this alliance between social conservatives and libertarian-leaning voters the “leave us alone coalition;” we may not all agree on what exactly the best society would look like, but we tend to agree that smaller and more limited government will get us there. Big government has proven to be both the enemy of freedom and of traditional values, an activist court offends both groups just about equally, and both groups tend to agree that a strong American military is a good thing.
What fatally wounded the Republican Party this past election was not a breakdown of the “leave us alone” coalition. And it sure wasn’t an ideological rejection embrace of liberal principles by a majority of the country. In fact, according to a poll by McLaughlin and Associates nearly six in ten voters said they want a smaller government with fewer services.
What destroyed the Republican majority was abandonment by the politicians of the coalition that put them in power. Far from being too pure or conservative for the moderate voters, this batch of Republicans looked too self-interested and smarmy to stomach. In fact, they looked too self-interested and smarmy for most conservative voters too.
What were Republicans running on this year?
Reducing the size and scope of government? Republicans had become the Party of big government. The explosion of earmarks was only the tip of the iceberg. Who can forget that George W. Bush and the Republican Congress passed the largest expansion of the Welfare State since LBJ, Medicare Part D?
A strong America? Rightly or wrongly, most Americans think the war in Iraq has been a disaster, and Bush’s final message before the election of “stay the course” sounded petulant, not strong. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and Iran is probably next. We can blame Clinton all we want, but the average voter can legitimately ask why after 6 years of Republican rule, the correlation of forces seems to be tilting against us.
Strict constructionist courts? Bush’s Supreme Court appointments of Alito and Roberts look good, but who can forget Bush’s Harriet Meyers fiasco and the message it sent regarding his seriousness about the courts? Bush looked more interested in rewarding his friends than anything else. Any chance Bush had of saying “trust me” was destroyed by the Meyers nomination.
Ethics in government? The Foley mess might have been the most recent example, and it certainly ruined any chance of surviving this round of elections, but it was only the latest in a string of examples of what had gone wrong in Washington. Denny Hastert and his leadership team had even defended corrupt Democrat William Jefferson against an FBI investigation into his undisputed corruption. Republican leaders looked like they were defending the members of a club, not holding members accountable for their behavior.
Interestingly, more voters named “corruption” as an issue affecting their votes than any other issue. In this instance, I think “corruption” is a generic term that goes far beyond the scandals in Washington, and goes to the real heart of the problem: most people in the country concluded that the Republicans were more interested in themselves and maintaining their power than in doing the right thing. Substitute “self-serving” for corrupt, and you’d get near universal agreement.
George Bush and Congressional leaders managed to destroy the brand identity of the Republican Party in a few short years. Ronald Reagan neatly summarized that brand in his first inaugural address: “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
The voters saw the Republicans abandoning everything they stood for and responded: “Republican politicians are not the solution to our problem; Republican politicians are the problem.”