The Next RNC Chair: Captain Of The GOP Titanic?

12/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Thomas B. Edsall Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor, Columbia School of Journalism

The steadily growing number of prospective candidates for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee share a collective dream: that 2008 will be a repeat of 1992, when a newly-elected Democratic president, backed by strong majorities in the House and Senate, stumbled, producing an across-the-board victory for the GOP in 1994

At the same time, GOP aspirants face the possibility of a nightmare scenario: taking the helm of a party so weighed down by doctrinaire hard-liners and hectoring moralists that no one, especially an RNC chair, will be able to change course and avoid a tsunami of culturally disinhibited, secularizing 'creatives,' Hispanics, African Americans, and a young netroot-savvy demographic cohort larger than the Baby Boom.

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After Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in 1964, much was written about the death of the GOP. Four years later Richard Nixon was sworn into office, kicking off nearly forty years of conservative dominion. There is a big difference between 1964 and 2008, however: no one argues that the McCain campaign marks the start of an ideological insurgency that is just beginning to gain strength.

Some 16 years ago, in the wake of Bill Clinton's victory, Haley Barbour ran for and won the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. Many thought the 1992 Democratic victory would whittle the bourbon-drinking, glad-handing lobbyist down to size. Instead, Barbour emerged as one of the heroes of 1994 when the GOP took over the House and Senate. Today he is the happy governor of his home state, Mississippi.

Republican success in 1994 was almost entirely dependent on initial missteps by Clinton. There is no evidence that Barack Obama will follow the Clinton precedent; if anything, evidence suggests that Obama and his team are acutely aware of the dangers which may befall them. In that sense, the GOP has a hard row to hoe.

Here are the threats to the GOP:

—The continuing decimation of the GOP's moderate wing in the House and Senate - "where do you find road-kill? In the middle of the road" - has left the party's House and Senate ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and free market zealots -- at a time of economic crisis brought about by an under-regulated financial sector run amok. "I'm rather pessimistic about seeing something comparable to David Cameron's remaking of the Tories in Britain," Furman political scientist Jim Guth told the Huffington Post. "Various types of conservative hardliners are too firmly entrenched in the GOP to give way so easily, and at the moment, none of their conservatisms is going to sell to the American public."

—The South, for four and a half decades the driving force in American politics and the engine of the new conservatism, shows signs of returning to its outlier, marginalized status. As the rest of the nation demonstrated little difficulty in voting for an African American on November 4, the Deep South and the Appalachian South turned in the other direction, with Southern whites voting against Obama (whites nationwide, 43 Obama, 55 McCain; in Mississippi 11-88; Alabama 10-88). (Adam Nossiter's "For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics" is an insightful analysis of these developments.)

The Grand Old Party, believing that the nation's political geography has turned against them, is slinking away from the battleground once owned by moderate Republicans like Rockefeller, Saltonstall, Chaffee, Mathias, and Weld. Democrats in the meantime have worked up their nerve to go after states hitherto thought off limits. Harvard political scientist Steve Ansolabehere notes that Democrats "have been building infrastructure in states like Montana and North Carolina, and . . . remain competitive in the southern state legislatures."

For over a decade, and most strikingly during the past two elections, the intensely anti-immigration stand of Republican House and Senate members, and their insulting rhetoric, has proven to be a loser. Republicans have lost House seats in predominately white Southwestern districts which conservatives believed would be a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment. In 1996, Republican mishandling of the immigration issue converted California into a reliably Democratic state, and now it looks as if the Republicans are on the road to repeating the feat in Florida, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and, potentially, Texas and Arizona.

The single largest block of Republican votes is made up of conservative white Christian evangelicals, who cast 4 out of every 10 ballots McCain received. These voters are overwhelmingly anti-abortion; they see homosexuality as a sin and as voluntary; many believe that women are subordinate and obliged to submit to the authority of men. These deeply held beliefs are increasingly out of tune with an electorate that has, in the main, come to terms with the sexual and women's rights revolution. Such trends are one of the reasons that the only age group McCain carried is people 65 and older - the voters who will die soonest.

The overall picture for Republicans at this point is bleak. Democratic consultant Bill Carrick catalogues the list of barriers: "Almost total lack of support from non-white voters, young voters are voting strongly Democratic and it may become a lifetime Democratic loyalty, the West is becoming more and more Democratic, the Democratic lock on the West Coast may be duplicated by a Democratic lock on the Atlantic Coast, in the post-Bush era Texas may become two-party competitive again, the once solidly Republican Mid-West is becoming a Democratic stronghold, Republicans are dramatically losing voters in the suburbs, and I could keep going on and on."

Along parallel lines, Stanford and Hoover Institution political scientist David Brady pointed out that at the moment, the temper of the times is not welcoming the GOP: "What is the market here? A change to government activism in financial markets, more taxes, regulation etc....If Obama governs reasonably from the center-left then the Republicans will not have an easy time of winning control, and the religious part of the party will still be in control or be its base because the issue of traditional values has not nor will go away quickly."

The Republican dilemma is reflected in the comments by Reihan Salam, co-author with Ross Douthat of Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream:

The composition of the electorate right now is so different in the United States than it was in any of those periods, including 1992, that it's very hard for me to see a very good analogue. We're also living in a country that for a lot of very structural reasons is going to be more inclined to consume government services, and I think there is a real danger there for the conservative movement. If you look at conservative parties in Britain and Sweden where you have much larger public-sector workforces, they are far to the left of our conservative party, the Republican Party. And I do wonder if we have the right strategies for this environment -- whether we're going to be able to fight back against the ratchet effect of creating a much bigger government that is going to increase dependency.....The same Americans who characterize themselves as believers in small government also wanted to increase the size and the influence and reach of the federal government in all of those areas.

There is a strong case to be made that the conservative movement that dominated American politics from 1966 onwards began to peter out in 1998 with the failure of the GOP drive to impeach Clinton, and faltered further in 2000 when George Bush ran 500,000 votes behind Al Gore, and succeeded to the White House by the grace of a split Supreme Court. During his first months in office, Bush's numbers slipped ominously, but he and the GOP got a shot in the arm on 9/11, as national security hurtled to the front of the agenda and revived the Republican Party for two more elections, 2002 and 2004.

With Bush's failure to manage the Iraq war, Katrina, and the epidemic of corruption on Capitol Hill, however, the implosion began in earnest, as the following chart demonstrates:

Steve Lombardo, of the Republican shop Lombardo Consulting, performed a detailed post-election analysis of 2008 exit poll data and found, in a troubling development for the GOP, that Obama's victory cannot be ascribed to any one or two groups that might lose clout in the future. Instead, Lombardo found, "the Obama victory was pervasive and cut across almost all demographic subgroups": Men (+5), women (+5), blacks (+5), Latinos (+14), Asians (+6), whites (+2), all income groups (+5 to +8), independents (+3), conservatives (+5), all religious groups (+4 to +8), and married and unmarried voters (+5).

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Unknown is the effect on domestic politics of the current economy. With lives, livelihood, even liberty on the table, the party that gets stuck with an era of impoverishment faces long odds. If Obama can right the ship, Democrats could be poised for a winning streak. If not, all bets are off.

Another major caveat in looking toward the future is the issue of terrorism. A new attack could easily surge to the forefront of voters' concerns. This issue is one that Democrats have never gained command of, and Obama's response in the event of an attack would likely prove crucial to his own election prospects and those of his party. The following chart created by Lombardo shows how McCain suffered only minor losses compared to Bush among those who are "very worried" about an attack, while taking a major beating among those less concerned:

John White, a Catholic University political scientist who has worked on the subject of the two parties, has a tough assessment of the GOP's problems. First of all, he told HuffPost, "Republicans have grasped for some time now that they have a party problem, but they have been unable to address it before November 4 because, crudely put, the corpse is still in the White House."

Exorcising Bush will not, however, cure the disease. "The Reagan coalition is dead. New demographics do not give the GOP anything close to a majority," White said. "Forget Reagan. He's part of history, having left office 20 years ago this coming January. Revere him, yes. But Republicans will have to retool for a new century." White believes that Republicans should revive the concept of compassionate conservatism and take a new approach on immigration, although it is difficult to see how incumbent members of the House and Senate could be persuaded to take such steps.

The prolific Chris Cillizza of WashingtonPost.com warns against accepting the notion that "the Republican Party suffered a death blow," but he notes that "much of the Republicans' permanent political class" now subscribes to the view that the party "is beyond saving and must be allowed to die."

Given the scope of the Republican dilemma, the rhetoric of the two announced candidates for RNC chair, Michigan Republican chairman Saul Anuzis and former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele, sounds thin.

Anuzis, a savvy political mechanic, is running "to bring back the party of ideas, bring it to every neighborhood in America and harness every tool of the digital age to lead an historic comeback for the GOP in 2010 and beyond." Steele, in turn, believes "we've been kind of wandering and doubting ourselves for far too long. And I think this past election was the culmination of that self-doubt which has to end. We have a message, I think, of empowerment and ownership and opportunity that resonates with Americans. We just need to get back to [it]."

With the near elimination of GOP moderates from the House and Senate, the short term direction of the party on the national front will most likely be determined by its conservative wing.

House Republican Leader John Boehner, no slouch on the ideological front (100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in 2007), faces a challenge from the right for his leadership post by California Congressman Dan Lungren, whose appeal to a broad electorate was demonstrated in the 1998 California gubernatorial contest when he lost to Gray Davis by 1.46 million votes, 39-59.

For those in the dominant conservative wing of the House GOP, the siren song for the next session comes from Michigan Representative Thaddeus G. McCotter, chair of the Republican House Policy Committee, in an article titled "Now, Seize Freedom!".

Welcome to 'Republican Rock Bottom.' Possessed of no vision, no principle, no purpose, and no appeal, we deserved our fate," McCotter told fellow conservatives. "Finally, we are divorced from self-deceits. Dead is the self-indulgent imbecility of 're-branding' -- as if the Republican Party was a corporate product to be repackaged, not a transformational political movement to be led. Despite what the media will tell you, and what so-called 'conservative leaders' will discuss ad nauseam during 'secret' meetings, this situation is not a crisis. It is an opportunity. Today, we are as the Great Emancipator proclaimed during another time of national trial: unbound by the tired dogmas of the past; and free to think and act anew.

Acting anew, however, does not sound impressively novel.

"What are the Republican Party's principles that will be employed to meet and surmount these challenges?," McCotter asks, and answers:

We have five enduring principles: 1. Our liberty is from God not the government. 2. Our sovereignty rests in our souls not the soil. 3. Our security is through strength not surrender. 4. Our prosperity is from the private sector not the public sector. 5. Our truths are self-evident not relative....We will seize freedom. We will be freedom!

In fact this sounds less like a decision "to think and act anew," and more like a de-poeticized version of Barry Goldwater in San Francisco just 44 years ago:

We must, and we shall, return to proven ways-- not because they are old, but because they are true. We must, and we shall, set the tide running again in the cause of freedom. And this party, with its every action, every word, every breath, and every heartbeat, has but a single resolve, and that is freedom - freedom made orderly for this nation by our constitutional government; freedom under a government limited by laws of nature and of nature's God.