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 … .