In the last couple weeks we've seen no shortage of sentiment implying that the GOP is in something akin to death throes, provided that it doesn't come to resemble something other than the modern GOP. This post has been building in me for a while, but the latest piece by Ron Brownstein, titled The Bush GOP's Fatal Contraction, kind of set me off.
Look, I'm not going to say that nothing bad happened to Republicans on November 4. I don't need to repeat the litany of losses we suffered that day. If you've forgotten, read Brownstein's piece. I've seen those numbers myself.
But I don't think its fair to say that "Bush leaves behind a party that looks less like a coalition than a clubhouse." It is a pretty d*mn big clubhouse. In the past few years, under a Republican President's watch, we've had two wars go badly, one of which a very large chunk of the country believes was unnecessary and founded on lies, a recession begin, instances of severe corruption, sex scandals, graft, massive deficit spending, and a city go under water, the financial system collapse, and a Republican President argue for a $700 billion bailout. All that was missing was plagues of locusts, and I'd have signed up for Hal Lindsay's newsletter. The Democrats nominated not just a political candidate, but a pop culture phenomenon, who raised three quarters of a billion dollars over the course of his campaign, who ran (at least in Virginia) on a platform of ending a foreign adventure, tax cuts for 95% of the American people, a health care plan in the middle of the free market and government-run plan, and good old fashioned mom and apple pie.
The result? The Democrat got about 53% of the vote, about the same as the first President Bush got against Dukakis, and if 5% higher than Kerry performed. Lest you think that this can all be chalked up to the racism of those darned West Virginians, Obama only ran about eight-tenths of a point behind Congressional Democrats.
In other words, about 9 in 20 voters voted for Republicans, versus 11 in 20 Democrats. In similar circumstances like 1952 and 1920, the verdict against the in-party has been much more dramatic. This is a bad result, but it is not a "chuck the social/fiscal/defense conservatives over the edge" bad result.
Brownstein continues that "[t]he consistent thread linking the 2006 and 2008 elections was the narrowing of the playing field for Republicans even as Democrats extended their reach into places once considered reliably "red." Pardon my colloquialisms, but "well duh." The Republican party consistently failed to perform and to produce good results over the past four years, and when it did (in Iraq), it was too late for the 2006 elections, and just in time for the business cycle to swing negative. When the Republican party was performing well, from about 2001-2003, it looked like reliably blue areas of the country like the upper midwest and the Pacific Northwest were trending their direction, while nothing was going right for Democrats. When you have power and you govern well, the country swings your way. When you have power and you don't the country does the opposite. Very quickly, it turns out.
The results of this election should not have surprised anyone, and if they did it should have only surprised them by how well the Republicans performed given the circumstances. When you have a President with 25% approval ratings, you don't make advances into blue states, you struggle to hold on to purple states, and you lose some ground in red states. That's not partisanship talking, that's common sense.
And Brownstein overlooks the most important fact of all when he writes:
But to win the GOP nomination, McCain embraced Bush's core economic and foreign policies and then selected, in Sarah Palin, a running mate who waged the culture war with a zeal that made Bush and Karl Rove look squeamish. Both decisions weakened McCain's position with centrist voters; then the financial collapse deepened the hole.
The very important fact that he overlooks is that even with Sarah Palin and McCain's supposed embrace of Bush's economic and foreign policies, McCain was leading Obama before the financial collapse took place (and this was well outside the time of the regular convention bounce). Obama was reduced to making snarky comments about lipstick on pigs and old dead fish and running commercials about how McCain couldn't send e-mails. He was getting ready to drop Keating 5 ads. In other words, up until September 15, this was a very winnable race for Republicans. It wasn't just at the Presidential level either -- between the RNC and the financial collapse, every generic congressional ballot poll had the Democrats' lead in single digits; we also had the first poll showing Republicans leading in the generic ballot since 2004. We were headed toward a three or four Senate seat loss, rather than the seven or eight one we're looking at today. Given the overall condition of the country even pre-AIG/Lehman Brothers, that is astounding.
If McCain had pulled it off, and Obama had received only 49% of the vote and Democrats had made minimal gains in Congress or worse, the conclusion would be either (1) that Americans are racist or (2) that Democrats just can't win the Presidency. Sorry, but the difference between a permanent Republican majority and a pup tent Republican party isn't 4% of the vote.
Anyway, the point of all of this is to go back to something very, very important that Patrick wrote about a week ago, and which conservatives should ponder carefully before they start excommunicating any branch of the party or otherwise seriously altering their message. He writes:
American elections are by and large not referendums on ideologies. They are contests of personality, optics, and performance in office. This goes the same for when they win or we win -- whether it's 1980, 1994, or 2006/2008. The Democrats did not have to change their ideology to win; they needed to change the charisma level of their standardbearer and needed an economic crisis and a prolonged unpopular war.
Because ideology doesn't matter in elections, and so much of politics depends on ephemeral characteristics like personality and who was in when the economy cycled south, the parties paradoxically have relatively wide latitude to govern ideologically without fear of public backlash once they get in. This is why cries of "socialism" were so ineffective during the campaign, and likewise why Bush got most of what he wanted in his early Presidency, even before 9/11. If Barack Obama is able to adopt far-left policies and make it look like he's making the trains run on time, the country will enter a new liberal era not by virtue of public opinion, but by acquiesence to what appears to be competent governance. In 1993-94, the Clintons tried to move the country to the left and looked incompetent in the process. It was the latter more than the former that opened a door for conservatives in 1994.
This is spot on. Republicans didn't lose because they were too conservative, or not conservative enough, or didn't ban abortion, or wanted to ban gay marriage. They lost because they were given the reigns of power, and they didn't perform. If you look at the big party changes across recent American elections: 2006/08, 1994, 1982, 1980, 1974, 1966, 1958, they share a common thread: The in-party screwed up. It doesn't have much to do with what the out-party was doing. If the Democrats screw up, all of those glowing internal exit poll numbers about Hispanics and youth and turnout and what-not will turn as depressing for them as they did in 2002 and 2004, when we were crowing about how Republicans had won 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties.
That's the worst thing about this election for Republicans -- our fate is not really in our hands. But in the meantime, we shouldn't act like the results from November 4 are a 1964/1984 "will we ever govern again" result, because they weren't. What we're doing on this site is important, and the party does need to examine how it interacts with its online communities, how it presents its message, and how it attacks the incoming administration. But that's ultimately for what happens when we are handed the reins of power. At what point in time we're handed the reins depends as much on the results the incoming Administration is perceived as supplying as it does anything we do in the background, but in the meantime, we've got a pretty darned good bedrock to build upon.