As commentators seem ready to over-interpret tomorrow's election results in three jurisdictions, they should instead consider how four long-term trends show the GOP engaged in political slow-motion suicide. The party that politically prospered over the decades because of flags and faith is now increasingly becoming the extreme and the Democrats the mainstream.
The elections tomorrow in New Jersey, Virginia and New York's 23rd appear likely to turn primarily on off-year turnouts and local lineups -- and in any event, so few contests aren't statistically very predictive of anything. On the other hand, when big ideological ideas crash into a wall called reality, voters eventually notice.
And Republican ideas on economics, health care and war have not just been disproven but discredited.
As goes the GDP, so often goes presidential elections. But the Great Recession of the past year was something far deeper than the normal fluctuation of the business cycle.
Aaron Sorkin's Too Big To Fail and James Stewart's recent piece in the New Yorker showed how close we came to a depression-level meltdown. This past century's second worst economy is rightly associated with the Bush-Cheney administration -- if they maintain that they deserve credit for no terrorist attacks since 9/11 (which conveniently forgets who was president on 9/11) then it logically follows that they deserve the blame for an economy in free-fall on their watch. As bad sub-prime mortgages and investment banks gambling with other people's money were eroding the economy, the Bush Team continued their ritual attacks on big government regulation, which was precisely what was needed to detect and avoid the problem. Indeed, in a Fox News poll last month about which president was "more responsible for the current state of the economy," respondents said Bush over Obama by 58% to 18%.
The GDP has risen 3.5% in the third quarter because, most economists agree, Obama's stimulus program helped replace disappearing business and consumer spending. So while the Republicans complain only about the rising deficit (which was 3.1% of the GDP in 1985 versus 1.2% now), who do you suppose will get and deserve the credit when the economy revives and unemployment finally falls? The Obama-Keynes policies will not simply be the rooster taking credit for the dawn but a strategy that indeed did rescue the economy. On the other hand, Bush's indifference to growing income inequality and excessive executive compensation -- and his we're-all-in-this-alone philosophy, in the phrase of Senator Dick Durbin -- will not be fondly remembered by a public angry at Wall Street.
Trend one: economic failure will be associated with Republicans and economic growth with Democrats.
Universal health care policies in Canada are so popular and successful that they rank with the Mounties as part of the social fabric. In the U.S. since Medicare and Medicaid a half century ago, our health care system has been half government-financed, yet Ronald Reagan never did anything to roll back such socialized medicine. So while the final health care reform law is in sight but not yet determined, it seems likely that it too will be end up as popular and as hard to repeal.
Recall that the reason William Kristol famously wrote in his 1993 memorandum that Republicans had to oppose Clinton's health reforms was not because they wouldn't work but because they might ... and lock in Democratic majority status for years to come. Ditto "Obamacare," which is now an epithet but will likely become a medal.
Of course, the GOP can't admit such a motive, so they talk about how it'll increase taxes and create "death panels," which are patently false, and prattle on about how the House bill is 1990 pages. Really? The problem is the length of a bill rather than preexisting conditions denying someone health insurance or health care costs being responsible for half of personal bankruptcies in America?
True, in a poll last week, Americans were divided 45%-45% over Obama health care proposals, but at the same time only 20% approved of Republican approaches. Presumably, if health care reform succeeds as well as, say, Medicare and Medicaid, these numbers will change to the GOP's disadvantage.
Trend two: while Republicans will be associated with expensive health care provided by big insurance companies, Democrats will be associated with affordable and accessible health care for all.
Every president takes an oath to protect and defend the United States, but after Iraq that no longer will mean trillion dollar preemptive wars against countries that never attacked us.
While the Obama policy and end game in Afghanistan is still murky, it's clear that Bush-Cheney will be forever associated with the "fiasco" of Iraq. As our troop presence there winds down significantly starting in the summer of 2010, voters will rightly associate that war with W. and our exit with Obama, who opposed it from the start and who ran against it when he defeated the pro-war McCain.
And I suspect that Obama's silent tribute to those coming home to Dover Air Force base will be as remembered as long as Bush and the "Mission Accomplished" banner on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.
While the public initially favored the Iraq invasion and occupation, albeit based on falsehoods about WMD and a Saddam-al Qaeda link, voters now by 2-1 say the war wasn't worth the cost.
Trend three: Republicans will be seen as the party of wars of choice while Democrats as the party associated instead with diplomacy first.
From The Emerging Democratic Majority by John Judas and Ruy Teixeira in 2004 to Ron Brownstein's analyses now, population trends indicate that Obama's big electoral win -- with a margin three times the size of Bush's -- was more a harbinger than an aberration.
It's not clear how a party that is anti-immigrant, anti-choice, anti-science (Terry Schiavo, global warming) -- and with not one black senator or congressperson -- can win elections in a country with more black, Latino, Asian, college-educated and younger voters. The majority of Republican senators who voted against Sonia Sotomayor did not help themselves become a majority party.
Already, the suburban and professional districts enjoying the largest population growths are increasingly Democratic. McCain got the same percentage of the white vote as Reagan, except it was of a far smaller universe. In 2008 a quarter of the voters were non-white, by mid-century it will approach half.
Trend four: Republicans will be limited to its smaller white, Southern base while Democrats can build enduring majorities based on new and growing populations.
Last week the same William Kristol in an op-ed in the Washington Post and George Will on ABC's This Week showed more numeracy than accuracy when they said that 40% of Americans called themselves "conservative" while only 20% said "liberal." That's accurate as far as it goes, which is not that far. For on issue after issue -- consumer regulation, the environment, health care -- voters choose Democratic policies over Republican ones. Actually, other than the deficit, it's hard to think of any issue where Republicans have the more popular policy. Which perhaps explains another number -- only 17% of American self-identify as Republicans, according to the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll.
This is not to predict the demise of a party 150 years old. Only its decline. There's still perhaps 35%-40% of Americans who continue to accept fundamentalist, small government, anti-tax, man-walked-with-dinosaurs appeals. But it's not a majority and it's shrinking. And with leading spokespeople like Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Back, there's little reason to see a reversal of this political descent.
Whatever happens in New Jersey, Virginia and New York on Tuesday, these four trends are millstones around the neck of a already minority party. If, as is probable, the economy recovers smartly, health care gets enacted and works, wars wind down and birth rates continue, imagine Democrats over coming decades asking voters, especially independent voters, "Want to go back to the Bush years of no-growth, of war, and of bankruptcies because of skyrocketing health care costs?"