Whither the GOP?

There is an excellent article in current Public Interest entitled A New GOP? by James W. Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvol, which analyzes the GOP on the eve of the recent election. (Read it all, as well as William Galston’s companion piece on the Democrats.)

Despite the polarization of the base voters of both parties, who are noisy and get all the attention:

… the main story of the last decade has been one of the parties moving to the center, at least in presidential contests. The New Democrats with whom President Clinton often sided were closer than old Democrats to Republicans, while George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatives” are closer than orthodox conservatives to Democrats.

In the present situation of parity in party strength, two strategies tempt party tacticians. One is to play to the party base, hoping to win by getting out more committed supporters than one’s opponent. The other is to appeal to the floating voters in the center, because neither party can win with its base alone. The bases of the two parties are fairly equal in size, each making up about a third of the electorate, leaving a large portion of the electorate up for grabs. Rather than embrace either one of these strategies completely, both parties oscillate between them, crafting a message to appeal to the particular “market” they are addressing. The conventions of 2004 were scripted mostly to appeal to the middle, while much of the advertising targets partisans.

Market segmentation, narrow-casting, etc. The techniques of modern marketing are being employed skillfully in the political arena as well. Despite the new tools, the aim of the game is the same as it has been since Martin van Buren invented the modern political party — find the middle, find the 50% point, and push beyond it, but not too much.

In one especially noteworthy passage, the authors explain that Democratic politicians have tried to avoid the political exposure which has come with support for socially liberal positions. As a result:

…they have turned the initiative over to the judiciary (at both the federal and, increasingly, state levels), which serves as the de facto legislative branch of the Democratic party. Once the courts take favorable action, Democratic politicians rally less to the defense of the policies themselves than to the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary, all the while charging that Republicans who object are “politicizing” these issues.

This is a pithy and accurate way to put it — the courts are the Democrats’ legislature because the policies they support cannot command legislative majorities. It is legislation by stealth, it is illegitimate, and thankfully it seems to be working less well recently.

The authors note that Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,”

…seems to have found the political center of the Republican party, at least in a period when foreign affairs have eclipsed domestic policy. On the cultural front, Bush has satisfied traditional conservatives with the ban on partial-birth abortion and opposition to gay marriage, even while some traditionalists have strongly opposed his stance on immigration. In economic policy, Bush won the early favor of libertarians with his income tax cuts. But other conservatives and many libertarians have watched with dismay as the administration enacted new federal programs in education and Medicare, while proving reluctant to curb government growth. Underneath the headlines from Iraq, Bush has pushed a velvet revolution in Republican domestic policy, promoting a more nationalist kind of conservatism. The fate of this approach will depend on the November election, as a Democratic victory will almost certainly spark a libertarian revolt within the GOP.

This small-l libertarian outrage has been apparent on this blog for a long time now. The intra-GOP libertarian revolt may yet come, despite Bush’s victory. Whether a more “libertarian” policy focus would lead to a more electorally viable GOP is another question. I expect we will see this struggle fought out in the primaries leading up to the 2008 election. Whoever wins, will both wings rally to the winner? Or will one sulk off and not vote? Or. catastrophically, will one of them form a third party and hand a crushing victory to the Democrats?

Bush has so far been extremely adept at papering over the cracks between the “traditional values” wing and the “libertarian” wing of his party. As the authors note, the war has given him cover, providing an external source of unity. In the future, will these two wings, neither of which commands anything like a national majority, have the discipline to utilize this current victory to continue to march together, to get some of their agendas enacted? Or will they fall into conflict and thereby hand power over to their mutual enemies?

This intra-party conflict will be one of the two big political stories of the next few years. First: Will the GOP be able to build on their recent gains and form a new, long-lasting realignment, or will its coalition disintegrate? Second: What path will the Democrats choose to take to try to regain their competitiveness, and how effective will they be at it? And the great imponderable looming over all this: How will the Iraq war and the war on terrorism develop and what major events from abroad will impact the political process?

Stay tuned … .

3 thoughts on “Whither the GOP?”

  1. An interesting possibility you did not mention is that the Democrats, recognizing that they need to expand their coalition, might try to pull in some libertarians. Presumably the strategy would not be to shift wholesale to libertarian positions, a policy likely to alienate their existing base, but to find enough areas of potential overlap to persuade libertarians whose are currently reluctant Republicans to become reluctant Democrats instead.

    One obvious possibility is a reduction in the War on Drugs. Coming out against it is, I suspect, still political suicide. But coming out for the federal government going along with state medical marijuana laws might not be. I was struck by the fact that Montana went for Bush by more than 60%–and went for medical marijuana by a similar margin.

    I recently made this suggestion to a Democratic congresswoman. Her reply was that there was already a bill in Congress along those lines, that she was a sponsor, and that the sponsors were mostly, although not entirely, Democrats.

    It would be nice to have the parties competing for libertarians–for a change.

  2. The “unlimited rights” wing of the libertarian mindset is already Democrat-leaning. libertarians who care about the Patriot Act are certainly not in the Republican camp. I think a lot of libertarians were fooled into thinking that the Democrats are somehow the party of fiscal responsibility, and their obsession with government debt has moved them in that direction. I don’t think we even have to discuss where the militant pacifist wing of the libertarian mindset would vote.

    On the other side, the only thing Bush has really offered a libertarian is tax cuts, but the huge increase in the overall size of the government largely negates that. He has done just enough in the way of refusing to sign Kyoto and reducing SOME regulatory burdens to keep a few libertarians listening, but I generally get the sense that hardcore libertarians now view the Republican party as worse than the Democrat party. This is an astonishing accomplishment considering that the Democrats have in no way sworn off the goal and desire to emulate the welfare-state socialist model of Europe as their ideal.

    Since the late 80’s the Republican party has squandered what libertarian philosophy that Goldwater and Reagan set in motion. Reagan was very popular without giving away huge chunks of tax-payer money to Democrat special interest groups. The biggest mistake the Republican party ever made was electing Bush Senior as president.

    Back in those days “conservative” and “liberal” defined what size the federal government aught to be, not whether you were for gay marriage.

    The utter ineptness of Michael Dukakis and Reagan’s coat-tails fooled the country-club, northeastern blue-blood Republicans into thinking that Bush had won because he had offered a “kinder, gentler America” that still believed that the government could make people’s lives better. What people actually voted for was the amount of money they had in their pockets due to a strong economy, which they credited to Reagan.

    Bush then went about increasing regulation, spending and taxes and was shocked when the economy went into recession. Then, and this is the worst thing that could have happened, the Democrats used this fact to basically rewrite history and say that the economy was in bad shape because of the “policies of the past 12 years” when it was really the policies of the past 4 years that were the problem. Now hardcore Reaganites were in the unenviable position of trying to defend something that they knew was wrong. Many remained silent.

    This was the beginning of the Republican party always learning the wrong lesson from defeat and success. The “Contract with America” showed that many Americans still wanted small government and low taxes. Unfortunately Bill Clinton was a genius at taking credit for things he didn’t do after they turned out well. In one of the great ironies of American politics, Clinton was credited with accomplishing something that he opposed vigorously almost until the day it happened (the “balanced” budget), then took credit for it.

    Unfortunately, Newt Gingrich, the mastermind of all of this was demonized by ther press and quite frinkly, Clinton out manuevered him from a PR standpoint. At this point in time the R’s were very bad at public relations and before the blogosphere had very little other than Rush Limbaugh to counteract this. This lead to the Republicans again drawing the wrong conclusion: That the American people want big government that has the power to make them happy. And “we’re going to give it to them”.

    This was an astonishing admission since the factors that lead to a “balanced” budget were holding the line on spending and essentially erasing Clinton’s tax increase with a cut in the capital gains tax. The real lesson that SHOULD have been learned is that if you shrink the size of government (admitedly, not in real terms but in comparison to the size of the economy) and cut taxes that restrain capital formation, the economy will grow at astonishing rates. And yet the Republicans managed to learn the exact opposite lesson!

    So, here’s where we are today: A Republican party that believes in big government. What’s sad is that if they would resume their libertarian ways, the economy would gurauntee them easy electoral victories for as far as the eye can see. Instead they are left scraping for a fragmented vote here and relying on massive turnout from people who don’t want gays to be married. They have definitely peicke dthe harder road.

    They now have the legislative and presidential power to accomplisha second Reagan revolution. Unfortunately they are going to use that to try and become Bill Clinton.

  3. It’s hard to comment on DS’s post without just picking nits, but here is my slightly different slant.

    I always rail against Richard Darman rather than Bush 41, but of course the President has to take responsibility for what he agrees to. I remember NPR and fiends insisting that the economy was in terrible shape even during Reagan’s second term. But the Darman recession basically silenced the attempts to say “That’s not what happened,” just as DS pointed out.

    I think of Clinton as having a stable of pollsters rather than a program. This is part of his ability to “take credit for things he didn’t do after they turned out well.” Perhaps Bush 43 is closer to having a program. As Ginny and Shannon point out, there are those private spending accounts. They may really change the political landscape over the long haul, accelerating the 401K and mutual fund ownership trends.

    But even with a smoothly growing economy, people will get bored and vote the Democrats back in. Partially it seems that the party in power always runs out of new ideas, or at least useful new ideas. And then tinkering to no obvious benefit leads the electorate to try something new.

    Should the Republican party really come through on the personal savings accounts, and an (anti-)social (in-)security program where people actually own some of their benefits, and actually reduce more regulations rather than playing the dumping & WTO game of tag, we would all be better off. And the Democrat interludes would be shorter.

    Matya no baka

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