Republicans, on the other hand, lack the mobilized interest groups that power the Democrats in every election cycle. None of the most prominent components of the GOP coalition expect to gain directly or personally from political victories. Pro-lifers, for instance, don’t seek protection for their own babies, but rather for the disregarded children of others and for a generalized culture of life. Military families pay a formidable, direct price for an unwavering U.S. commitment to fight Islamic terror but still favor such policies because of their view of national honor and security. Gun rights advocates and defenders of traditional marriage seek no benefit from governmental favoritism; instead, they work to protect cherished and time-honored American values from unprecedented assault. Even in the contentious arena of tax policy, few of today’s Republicans expect that political victories will bring their personal enrichment. Their chief aim in this political season involved the defeat of Democratic plans to increase tax burdens, government spending and deficits. Senator Obama repeatedly promised that he’d lower, rather than raise, taxes for all but the wealthiest Americans, but even solidly middle class conservatives opposed those plans because of concerns over fundamental economic fairness (should any American give up half his earnings to the government?) and the health of the overall economy.
In the election of 2008, Republicans operated from the beginning under a profound handicap. While the Democrats appealed to specific, well-organized constituencies with the prospect of taxpayer money and bureaucratic favor, the GOP tried to make arguments in behalf of the common good and the general welfare. For many voters, the prospect of short-term gain (“free” health care, subsidized college tuition, and even federal pre-school) trumped any concerns over national security, long term deficits or bureaucratic bloat.
How can the GOP hope to overcome the semi-permanent edge for a rival party that bases its appeal on promises of instant assistance to major chunks of the American electorate?
Following the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress in 1994, the conservatives made a conscious, concerted attempt effort to build a permanent governing majority based on interests and not just values. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, House leader Tom Delay, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others launched “the K Street Project” --- an ambitious plan to align major industries and lobbying concerns with the Republican Party in the same way that organized labor, teachers, social workers and trial lawyers became permanently bonded with the Democrats. The effort to expand the party’s base and raise unlimited funds through the prospect of constituent gain brought notable election victories for the Republicans but also led directly to the lavish spending on “earmarks” and other dubious appropriations that represented the most conspicuous failing of the Bush administration. When it comes to federal activism or sweeping new initiatives, no party of small government and constitutional limits can hope to compete with its welfare state opponents without sacrificing its credibility and its very soul. In part, the GOP effort to out-do the Democrats in pandering and the service of special interests led directly to the disastrous Congressional defeats of 2006, and to the difficult campaign season of 2008.
The Republicans can only return to a position as the dominant party if some sense of international peril, some imminent and undeniable threat, forces the electorate to focus more on the fate of the country as a whole above the prospect of instantaneous advantages for particular constituencies.
In the last 60 years, Republicans only won electoral majorities and captured the White House from Democrats when Americans found themselves at war. In 1952, the great general Dwight Eisenhower took power from Harry Truman with the U.S. mired in a Korean conflict that the Democrats seemed powerless to win. Richard Nixon took over from Lyndon Johnson in 1968 at the very height of a profoundly bloody Vietnam conflict that claimed hundreds of American lives every week with no end in sight. In 1980, Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter only after the abject failure of a military expedition to rescue our hostages in Iran, and humiliating Soviet advances in Central America, Africa and Afghanistan. In the election of 2000, George W. Bush sought to oust the Democrats during a time of relative international peace and, predictably, lost to Al Gore in the popular vote. Four years later, with the United States engaged in two costly wars and determinedly facing down the threat of Islamo-Nazi terror, he won a far more clear- cut popular and electoral vote victory.
In the same time period that Republicans seized control from Democrats only at moments of international crisis, Democrats drove out Republicans only at times of relative global calm when promises of self-interested gain could resonate without shame among the electorate. Kennedy replaced Nixon in 1960 only after Eisenhower’s restrained and steady leadership led to a relative lull in the Cold War, giving voters the chance to cast their ballots on promises of Medicare for seniors and other big government programs. Carter took over from Ford and Nixon after Americans had withdrawn from Vietnam, Nixon had brought softening relations with both China and Russia, and Kissinger and Nixon had helped the world survive the horribly dangerous Middle Eastern War of 1973. Most famously, Bill Clinton turned out George H.W. Bush with the slogan “The Economy, Stupid!” after the triumphant conclusion of both the Cold war and the first Gulf War gave the public the luxury of ignoring international issues.
Obviously, the campaign of 2008 bears far more resemblance to the “promise-them-anything,” domestically-focused elections of 1960, 1976, 1992 and 2000, than to the war-torn, face-down-the-international-threat electoral battles of 1952, 1968, 1980 and 2004. All the polls show that voters placed national security and terrorism far down their lists of priorities this year. The success of the Bush-McCain surge strategy drove the Iraq war off the front pages, with American and Iraqi casualties reaching a new low in the month of October. After seven years of safety from major terrorist attacks, not even disturbing news from Afghanistan could divert the electorate’s attention from the huge new governmental initiatives proposed by Barack Obama to benefit his various supporters.
John McCain and his advisors picked an appropriate slogan when they came up with the phrase “Country First.” Those two words neatly contrast the Republican emphasis on lasting values and long-term security with the Democratic preference for feel-good, immediate gratification initiatives to pay off the party’s hungry and demanding special interests. The final results will indicate whether the people saw the current global economic crisis as serious enough to warrant transcending narrow advantage for the sake of the Republic at large, and placing the security of the national whole above politically popular efforts at pleasing one party’s favored parts.