Writing obituaries for the Republican Party, or predicting how they might recover, has become a very popular topic. As Bob Barr told CNN, “The Republican Party is in very deep trouble right now.” Bruce Bartlett has written about The Dismal Failure Of The GOP for Forbes.
Bartlett took a historical view of the two major political parties, showing how their relative power has varied over the years. After looking at eras which have little relevance to our current political situation, Bartlett discussed how the Republicans became the majority party after the Democrats became “a more purely liberal party no longer restrained by a conservative Southern wing.” What the Republicans failed to recognize is that you can either have a majority party or a party which consistently supports a single ideology. You cannot have both. Bartlett wrote:
After winning control of Congress and the White House in 2000, Republicans were as full of themselves as Democrats had been after achieving the same goal in 1976 and 1992. Cooperation with the other party was viewed as a sell-out by partisans of the party in control. The dominant element of each party–liberals in 1977 and 1993, and conservatives in 2001–moved quickly to implement long-cherished measures that had been blocked by a lack of unified control of the executive and legislative branches.
As the Republicans moved to the extreme right and purged those who did not follow the party line, the Democrats built the big tent:
At this point, Democrats finally accepted that applying ideological litmus tests was self-defeating. If some moderate or conservative wanted to run in a district that would only elect a moderate or conservative, then it was stupid to insist that they endorse every liberal item in the Democratic agenda. Moderates and conservatives were permitted to dissent from the party line on issues such as gun control if that was what it took to win.
This “big tent” approach was highly successful and greatly helped Democrats retake control of Congress in 2006. What probably hurt congressional Republicans the most, however, was their down-the-line support for every action by George W. Bush, no matter how ill-conceived, poorly implemented or at odds with the party’s basic philosophy, such as when he insisted on a massive expansion of Medicare in 2003.
As a consequence, the Republican brand was destroyed. The party is now widely viewed as corrupt, incompetent, ideologically rigid and out of step with the American mainstream. It should be engaging in self-examination, developing an agenda that addresses the real problems faced by Americans and reaching out to the millions of voters who have left the GOP in recent years. Instead, Republicans are pushing out the last of the party’s moderates as if that will somehow make them more popular with the very moderates whose votes are essential if they are to regain power.
I think Republicans desperately need a group that will do for them what the DLC did for the Democrats. Unfortunately, I see no such organization or any resources available for those that might start one. Those with such resources are either turned off by Republican pandering to its right wing and have left the party or they agree with it. Either way, no one in the Republican Party seems to have any interest in victory, and they prefer to wear defeat as some kind of badge of honor.
Eventually, Republicans will tire of being out of power just as Democrats did, and they will do what it takes to win. But I fear that Republicans will have to at least lose in 2010 and again in 2012 before they start to come to their senses. Perhaps by 2014, some leader with maturity, resources, vision and discipline will find a way of leading the GOP out of the wilderness. But I see no one even in a position to start that process today.
I have often argued that the Republicans must either change their views or go the way of the Whigs. While there is no guarantee of this happening, I also tend to think that at some point we will have a restoration of a two party system, either by the Republicans coming to their senses and recovering or by a new party developing from splits in the Democratic majority.
There are a number of potential ways to see the Republicans coming back into power. Hopefully this will be from them coming to their senses and moving back from the extreme far right. There are also other possibilities.
The Democrats might commit political suicide by following the path of the Republicans should they move to the far left and act to oust those who fail to show ideological purity. At present this is contrary to the direction the Democrats have been moving in, but there are some who do show such tendencies. As I noted a few days ago, it is also possible that Democratic successes could also lead to people no longer having the same reasons to vote Democratic in order to achieve plans offered by the Democrats such as increased access to health care once this is accomplished.
Conditions in the country and the world will play a part in the fortunes of the two political parties. Democratic prospects will be far better if the economy improves over the next few years. Often unpredictable events have a tremendous influence over politics. When George Bush was (questionably) elected in 2000 we could not have predicted that the Republicans would benefit from a terrorist attack in 2001, despite the fact that they mishandled it so badly. When Bush was reelected in 2004 we also could not have predicted that his poor response to Katrina would so quickly demonstrate the incompetence of the Republicans even to many former Republican voters.
Time could work to the benefit of the Republicans. An increasing number of Democratic House and Senate seats are now from areas which have been Republican until recently, making them harder to defend. Historically the party out of office does better in off year elections. Americans tend to both have a short memory and a tendency to grow tired of the party in power. At present this might not help the Republicans as they continue to remind people of why they were voted out as they claim they lost because they were not conservative enough.
Republicans might also return to power based upon their rhetorical ability and tendency to distort the truth. As people forget the disasters of past Republican rule, Voodoo economics might again look attractive. While Republicans policies don’t work in the real world, it sure does sound attractive to be able to cut taxes and simultaneously bring in more revenue. While Republican scare tactics about what Democrats will do are repeatedly contradicted by reality, there’s also a sucker born every minute. There are still many who believe that Democrats want to take away their guns and Bibles, with some conservative claims, such as those spread by Glenn Beck, becoming even more paranoid
The best chance for the Republicans would be, as Bartlett says, to “come to their senses.” At present Bartlett is right that this appears difficult. The general trend of history has been towards freedom and reason while the Republicans try to fight these trends. A party which has many members which support creationism over evolution and modern biology, fights stem cell research on religious grounds, and denies the scientific consensus on climate change will not be taken seriously by most educated and intelligent people in the 21st century.
In order to survive in the modern world, the Republicans must acknowledge both that abortion rights is a settled issue and that the state has no right to tell a woman what she can do with her body. Republicans must realize the government should not intervene in other personal decisions, ranging from contraception to end of life decisions (as in the Terri Schiavo case). Republicans must realize that although they were able to capitalize on homophobia in 2004 with votes to prevent gay marriage, the attitude of the country is rapidly changing on gay marriage and other social issues.
Republicans must realize understand the significance of the decision of the founding fathers to create a secular government characterized by separation of church and state, as opposed to promoting a revisionist history which denies this and falsely claiming that the United States was established as a Christian nation.
Some Republicans would claim that saying Republicans should abandon these views is to say they should not be Republicans as they consider these views to be essential components of conservatism. In actuality there is no contradiction between rejecting the extremism of the religious right and conservatism. Doing this would be a return to the philosophy of Barry Goldwater, which many contemporary conservatives falsely claim to be following.