02/11/2013 10:38 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

Wedges and Whigs

A life in politics can be so unfair, especially if you're an up-and-coming would-be political strategist, especially if you plan to work for Republicans.

For a long time, Republicans have gotten their successes by using the invention of the late Lee Atwater, which was commonly referred to as a wedge issue ad. A typical Atwater ad would involve scary black people, run-down neighborhoods, and a fear of people who are different from the viewer of the ad.

Roughly the same strategy of scare mongering comprised the foreign policy of the Republican party during that same period. Ads that would play on the fear of the unknown, of Russian espionage, of Chinese spies, or nameless people who are out to destroy us. This strategy involved making it seem as though your opponent was either oblivious to the dangers of these foreigners or too "weak" to do anything about them. All went well until the Soviet Union started to fall apart precipitously. What with the Berlin Wall coming down and affable Mr. Gorbachev's seeming willingness to give away the store, it looked as if the Republicans were going to run out of bogeymen.

They got a reprieve when al-Qaeda came on the scene and 9/11 scared the daylights out of everyone in this country. But bogeymen don't come cheap. And all bad things must come to an end, especially when they run up a huge federal deficit. With the Red Menace fading as a fear factor, the party of Karl Rove and the other hired guns has suddenly seemed lonely and in danger of becoming as irrelevant as the Whigs.

The Whigs, as you may know, were very big, very popular in the politics of the first half of the 19th century. In some ways, it seemed like they'd be a good fit for the GOP. They were suspicious of foreign domination in commerce and unwelcoming to foreigners. Of course, their main claim to fame was that they were opposed to everything Andrew Jackson tried to do as president. But they couldn't come up with a consistent bogeyman along the lines of the Red Menace. They faded very quickly, and by 1860, they were no longer a party of any consequence.

Today's Republicans haven't stopped searching for a new bogeyman that would work in the 21st century. They've tried desperately to scare the public about Iran and President Obama's supposed weakness in refusing to put "Boots on the Ground" or draw a red line. (John McCain would have made an excellent Whig.)

The Republicans may have outsmarted themselves by creating a new bogeyman in our federal budget deficit. Many voters remembered that the GOP had done most of the work in creating it in the Bush/Cheney years. So they frequently resembled a prizefighter who keeps hitting himself in the face.

Is this the end of the reborn Whig party in America? Probably, since it's hard to build a political movement on the basis of a few grumpy old men. So it looks as if the Wedges are slated to go the way of the Whigs. Sic Transit Gloria.