The political death-watch for RNC Chairman Michael Steele is wildly entertaining: who knew the party that gave us George W. Bush and Sarah Palin was holding back its best buffoon yet? The bigger question, though, is not so much whether Steele will survive, but whether it his party that is doomed.
Defeated, lacking in leadership, deeply divided despite its shrinking size, out of touch with the country, demographically unrepresentative: the GOP has hit the kind of perfect storm that it has not faced in a long time, and it is not an exaggeration to state that the party's survival is at stake. Yes, Republicans have been in deep crises before, most recently in the aftermath of Watergate, and have lived to see another day. Yes, the party's corporate benefactors are not likely to let it go down without a fight. And yes, the US electoral system is not conducive to change: since the demise of the Whig Party 150 years ago, Democrats and Republicans have mostly had the field to themselves.
But the current crisis feels different. The Republican Party's defeat in November was so complete that you have to go back to, well, the post-Watergate 1970s for a comparable imbalance in Congress in favor of the Democratic Party. And it could get worse in 2010: four GOP-held Senate seats are open, with probably more to come. Thanks to infighting, other seats are also endangered: in Kentucky where the party is desperate to get rid of its mad Senator Jim Bunning, who will have none of it; and in Pennsylvania, where the 79 year-old moderate incumbent Arlen Specter is unlikely to make it past the GOP primary, so despised is he in his party. On the presidential front, the numbers are equally as grim: in a two-person race, one has to go back to 1964 for a Republican performance as dismal as John McCain's.
McCain's campaign and defeat, combined with Bush's record unpopularity, have left the party absolutely leaderless. There are at least two-dozen men and women who could claim to be the most powerful person in the Republican Party: from Steele to Palin to Rush Limbaugh, through a list of members of Congress, Governors and failed Presidential candidates, it is a complete free-for-all. Making matters worse, these would-be leaders are mostly a deeply unappealing bunch born to do anything but lead. On what is clearly the most pressing issue of the time, the economy, top Republicans have neither followed, nor lead: not only did they get us into this spot, but they have absolutely no idea how to get us out of it. If there were one, just one, strong voice in the party to argue coherently against the stimulus package and government spending generally, perhaps the country would listen. But instead, there is a cacophony of absurd doomsday forecasts, trickle-down retreads, senile railings against earmarks, rantings about the stimulus' lack of religiosity, or simply silence. We have yet to hear a single realistic scenario from a top Republican that would outline how and when the country could move forward from its current meltdown.
Of course, the Republican Party could go on losing elections ad eternam and still survive, as it did for the twenty years following the Great Depression (with one electoral hiccup of a win in 1946). But the rumblings of discontent from those whose individual political careers are at stake are already getting louder. The split is most evident among Governors: the sniping between moderate, or at least pragmatic Republican chief executives, and their right-wing orthodox counterparts is striking. In one corner, are most prominently Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Charlie Crist of Florida, who are embracing the stimulus funds coming their way. In the other corner are nutjobs Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who have threatened to turn down stimulus money, or perhaps some of it, especially that which would go to increasing unemployment checks, because, well, we don't really know. But that's what Ronald Reagan would have done. They're pretty sure. Perhaps. Anyway, it's government money, so it's bad money and they don't want it. Look for the pragmatic wing of the party to chuckle ever louder at their party's economic ayatollahs and, eventually, to ignore them, as Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has decided to do: "I don't even know the congressional leadership. [...] I have not met them. I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential -- completely."
It is telling that Congressional Republicans' biggest self-perceived achievement in months (or is it years?) was the unanimous rejection of the stimulus package by their House caucus. They partied like it was 1984 in celebration of this symbolic success, ignoring the fact that a growing majority of voters favor increased government spending. This is nothing unusual, as, on nearly every issue, Americans prefer the Democrats' positions, which only seems to harden the besieged Republicans. Rather than make them look strong and consistent on their core values and principles, Republicans increasingly come off as stubborn lunatics sticking to failed policies and dismissive of the country's will. Perhaps one day Americans will again favor economic policies that destroy the middle class, further impoverish the poor, create billionaires by the boatload and threaten the country's stability, but even for a people with a strong capacity to forgive and forget, this does not seem likely to happen soon. That the Republican Party is out of touch with a vast majority of the country should not be a surprise: even as heterosexual Christian white men are shrinking in numbers (probably fewer than a quarter of Americans could be so described), they make up well over 90% of the party's members of Congress. There is nothing inherently wrong with heterosexual Christian white men, but a party this homogeneous does not have a shot at understanding what the country needs. It also explains why Republicans are left dredging for diversity among the Palins, Jindals and Steeles of the world. More ominously, you cannot expect much of a future when you have lost an entire generation of young people, and several generations of immigrants, for the benefit of short-term electoral gains that never materialized. Nor can you beat up on every significant growing constituency and expect it to come around at election time.
For now, Republicans seem to be settling their hopes on the usual suspects: abortion and gay people. When Steele is deposed of his chairmanship, it will be because of his intemperately moderate comments on both issues, which have predictably energized the party's social conservatives. Indeed, Barack Obama may well add fuel to the fire if he extends benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers. This, says sex-obsessed right-winger Gary Bauer, will "provoke a furious grass-roots reaction [and] reinvigorate the conservative coalition." So that is what will unify the Republican Party: keeping gay people uninsured. A sure winner. The GOP has long been fissured along social issues, with moderates generally losing the internal battles on abortion and gay rights, but winning the bigger war, as America in general has progressed their way. Now economic policy is proving equally as divisive, except that most Americans actually care deeply about the issue (as opposed to, say, late-term abortions.) This is why Republicans' position on the stimulus package is so unfathomable: what base exactly are they catering to? Surely not to their shrinking bastions in Appalachia and the Deep South, among the poorest states in the country, and precisely those most dependent on federal money. As irrational as we may think they were for voting for McCain, does the Republican Party really think that struggling white voters in, say, Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana will take kindly to the GOP's bizarre last stand on the economy?
The current Republican in-fighting is often described as a battle for the soul of the party. The GOP has no soul, so that description is inaccurate. However, many of its members, like all politicians, have an instinct for self-preservation. The question now is where these survival impulses take individual Republicans. There is talk of some moderates leaving the party, either as independents (Schwarzenegger) or Democrats (Specter). Those who remain will either reengineer the party to look, act and think more like mainstream America; or they will delve deeper into its most extremist recesses. If it is the former, it is hard to imagine the party's right-wingers staying onboard and, with nowhere to go but out, it is likely they would at least attempt the previously unthinkable: forming their own conservative party. If the extremists win and take the party ever further right, what will happen to the middle-of-the-road wing of the Republican party, let alone its moderate and liberal members? Their political careers, already threatened, are likely to become yet more tenuous, at least as Republicans. With the Democratic Party occupying the terrain from the center of the spectrum to the far-left, there is little room for an alternative moderate, centrist party. That would give the more pragmatic members of the GOP little choice: to lose as Republicans, or win as Democrats or independents. In either scenario, the Republican Party in its current incarnation would wither away, or perhaps even disappear.
That the GOP survived the 1970s is no indication that it can survive its current crisis: Watergate was very much about one man, Richard Nixon, and while the Republican brand was badly damaged, its policies were not: Vietnam was not a Republican war, and the dreadful state of the economy was not particularly perceived to be the responsibility of the GOP, or even of Nixon. In fact, Nixon's approval ratings remained quite high until the Watergate scandal fully unfolded. His Republican successor, Gerald Ford, started his own term with sky-high popular approval. The party is in a very different situation now: the Iraq folly and the disastrous economy are widely believed to be the result of Republican policies, which the party endorses to this day. The GOP's bulwark of corporate benefactors is also crumbling: they have far more pressing matters than to prop up a party that has not done much for them lately. Indeed, the US Chamber of Commerce, not exactly a Marxist stronghold, enthusiastically endorsed the stimulus package. The Republicans' best friend remains an electoral system that entrenches the two-party system. That said, there is precedent for more than two parties in countries with similar first-past-the-post elections: the UK, for instance, has three main parties, all of which have parliamentary representation. And, also in the UK, the emergence of the Labour Party in the 20th century spelled the doom of the Liberal Party, until the latter reincarnated and merged with a fourth party in the 1980s.
The Republican Party's predicament bears little resemblance to the one facing Democrats in Bush's first term, when Karl Rove famously predicted a long-lasting Republican majority. This asinine forecast was based on the flimsiest of evidence: four years during which Republicans were in charge of both the White House and Congress, a Bush defeat in the popular vote followed by a narrow win, and a few equally narrow Congressional victories, mostly eked out through a probably illegal redrawing of districts in Texas. To put things in perspective, the only time Republicans have matched the kind of majority Democrats now enjoy was in 1921-23, after which a string of increasingly slim GOP victories eventually yielded the Great Depression (funny how that works). Even so, no one is predicting a permanent Democratic majority: that does not happen in a democracy. What we are predicting is that a party as failed, rudderless, and out-of-touch as the present-day GOP is destined for extinction unless it changes drastically and quickly. And that by staking its future on the likes of Palin, Jindal, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, all of whom have failed every significant test of political leadership, the Republican Party is simply accelerating its increasingly inevitable demise.