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Republican Purgatory: How Long Will It Last?


First Posted: 12-18-08 11:30 PM   |   Updated: 01-18-09 05:12 AM

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From the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to the National Review Online, Republicans are working furiously to develop a comeback strategy.

The range of proposals and tactics runs the gamut from abandoning the religious right, to staying the course, to purging traitorous big-government conservatives lured by pork and power.

"Republicans walked away from the principles that minted our governing majority in 1980 and 1994," declared Mike Pence, the newly elected chair of the House Republican Conference. "There is a way out of the wilderness. But it will require humility, vision, positive alternatives and a willingness to fight for what makes America great."

That's not enough, counsels the American Enterprise Institute's David Frum: "College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats--but that their values are under threat from Republicans. And there are more and more of these college-educated Americans all the time. So the question for the GOP is: will it pursue them? To do so will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. And it will potentially involve even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues. That is a future that leaves little room for [Sarah] Palin--but it is the only hope for a Republican recovery."

Evidence available now suggests, however, that whatever advice the GOP takes, it better not hold its breath. In all likelihood, Republicans can look forward to a considerable period on the sidelines. Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi could stumble badly in the face of a disastrous economy and under the constant threat of terrorist assault, but without such an opening, the Republican Party is not yet in a position to engineer its way back to dominance.

Why? First, party strength moves in cycles and the Democratic Party's turn has only just begun. Thus far, the Obama administration-to-be has demonstrated a commitment to avoiding the pitfalls of its Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, giving the GOP little, or no, negative material to work with.

Second, memories of the Bush years, of the war in Iraq, congressional corruption, and above all, the trillion-dollar meltdown will require years to fade.

That does not mean the Democrats are secure. Sixteen years ago, in the wake of the 1992 election, support for Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party nosedived. But in 1994, the GOP had not been as tainted as it has been today.

"This is a very bad point in the cycle for Republicans, in terms of demographic trends in voter support, the timing of the cycle, and the overall image of the party," said the AEI's Norman Ornstein. "Republicans can hope that Obama and congressional Dems screw up, or that voters are less patient about economic recovery than they were in the 1930s. But that is a thin reed on which to base long-term hopes when neither geographical bases nor emerging voter groups are moving in your direction."

Democratic consultant Bill Carrick noted that in 1993-94, his party's setbacks followed the 1992 election in which Bill Clinton won only a plurality in a three-way contest, and in 1994, "the Ross Perot voters went for Republican Congressional candidates. Right now, there is no similar large group of alienated and unaligned voters capable of changing the partisan balance."

Carrick argues that "we are likely at the beginning of a Democratic-dominant period. Republicans are confronted with multiple problems--regional, demographic, and ideological. So far, the GOP leadership barely acknowledges most of these problems. The first part of building a healthy Republican Party would be to recognize the seriousness of your problems. The political climate could be very hostile to the GOP for several more years. The severity of the current economic crises is much better suited to Democratic solutions like stimulating the economy with government spending or dealing with government help on mortgage foreclosures."

Republican pollster Whit Ayres was more optimistic about GOP prospects, noting not only the brevity of the 1992 Democratic surge, but also the quick collapse of Democrats' Watergate-driven gains in 1974 and 1976, quickly followed by major Republican congressional pickups in 1978, and the GOP take-over of the White House and Senate in the 1980 election. "The electorate can switch gears very fast," he said.

Ayres shares the widely-held view that "what really matters now is how Obama governs." But he believes that "Republican failings will seem like ancient history compared to Obama's struggles to deal with the economy and looming terrorist threats."

Looking at these questions from a long-term historical perspective, Yale political scientist David Mayhew contends that "perceived management success or failure by an in-party, involving the economy or national security, has been more important in motoring parties in or out of office. On the economic front, governing parties as well as their entire doctrines of political economy have been discredited by bad economic troubles that the in-parties didn't deal with well. Consider the Grover Cleveland Democrats (small state; free trade) in 1894-96, the Hoover GOP in 1930-32, the Carter Democrats (the great inflation; stagflation; the demise of Keynesianism, etc.) in 1980."

This suggests, according to Mayhew, that "on occasions like these, a new in-party has a priceless opportunity to enact policies its activists would have wanted to enact anyway by wrapping them in a package of relief, recovery, and needed structural reform. That window is opening up for the Obama Democrats."

In the meantime, Obama and his advisors are going out of their way to demonstrate that their decisions will not be designed to accommodate ideological interest groups, but rather to secure a centrist footing, a strategy demonstrated most explicitly by Obama's top Cabinet-level appointments and by the choice - some say centrist, some say too far to the right - of Saddleback Church's Rick Warren to give the invocation at the January 20 inauguration.

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