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Nancy L. Cohen

Nancy L. Cohen

Posted: May 8, 2009 05:36 PM

Palin v. McCain, Round Two


Who will win the battle for the soul of the GOP? There's little need to follow the unfolding drama, because the verdict is already in. Look to the daughters. Meghan McCain has been excommunicated from the party by Father Rush, and Mother Bristol Palin is back on the campaign trail for abstinence.

The past two weeks have brought much news about the GOP's civil war. Eric Cantor, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and assorted headmen and headwomen from the GOP establishment have kicked off a listening tour and censored all talk of gays, abortion, creationism, immigrants, and the traditional family. The Right threatens, howls, and schemes. The nearly extinct moderates are jumping ship, retreating from battle, or speaking out against extremism.

Those outside the circular firing squad observe with a mixture of detached analysis, glee and concern. Even Frank Rich warns of the dangers of one-party Democratic rule if the GOP implodes. After the fiasco of the Bush administration, it's perhaps reasonable to be vigilant about preserving the two-party system. But Rich and others similarly worried should rest easy, because all is not as it seems.

Reports of the death of the GOP have been much exaggerated. It's useful to remember that the death of the GOP was pronounced in 1992. And again in 1998. And again in 2006. What we are witnessing now is not an epic struggle over the identity and survival of a great American institution. This is rather the GOP's biennial renegotiation over who will acquire the right to stage-manage the next election campaign.

Cantor and company's phony rebranding is lifted from the playbook of the 1990s: don't scare the voters, keep the crazies out of sight, and keep our promises to each other to ourselves. The National Council for a New America drops the GOP label and stays silent on social issues. The Right protests. Cantor recants--or as he insists, clarifies.

Whether the conflicts are real or are performances for our distraction is beside the point. Either way, they derive from the core dilemma of today's Republican party. To put it baldly, the GOP is the pro-big business party, but there aren't millions of voters clamoring for more corporate welfare. As David Axelrod once said, politics is a function of math. The "base" of the GOP, the mass constituency who supply the votes to put Republicans in office, vote their morals, period. The antigovernment, anti-tax, economic conservatives are, at best, indifferent to the causes of the zealots. They know that the Christian Right is profoundly out of sync with mainstream American public opinion. They know that they are becoming a rump party--regionally, ideologically, and ethnically isolated from the maincurrents of American life. Yet they know that the GOP cannot win elections without the Christian Right. They struck this deal long ago, and now they're stuck with it.

What does this mean for the future of the Grand Old Pary? Will the GOP mount a fiercely ideological campaign in 2012, like it did when Bush senior ran for reelection in 1992? Will it moderate its message during the campaign, as Bush junior did, only to reveal its true identity once elected? It's too early to tell which faction of the Right will be running the shop for the next few years.

Will the GOP continue as the zombie of American politics, returning to life after each purported death, more monstrous in each incarnation? Or will it follow the pattern of Republicans during the New Deal and northern Democrats during the Civil War--obstruct and shrink, yet survive for a postwar renewal? It's too early to tell, though my guess is the latter, if only because the financial and institutional obstacles to creating a new second party are nearly insuperable.

What is certain is that the GOP is no place for young moderates, or for that matter, any moderate not already in possession of a secure Senate seat. Meghan McCain, who is blessed with courage and perhaps burdened with a family legacy to uphold, has committed to waging the good fight. There is no reason her like-minded peers would join her in her noble, but quixotic, quest.