The choice made by Arlen Specter to leave the Republican party and join the Democrats is yet another sign that the GOP is in big trouble. To be sure, Specter’s move is dismissed by the right wing of the party as meaningless — he often sided with Democrats on some red meat issues of the Republican base. They can also criticize him as having been politically motivated. Back in the primary season as the Obama-Clinton race reached a crescendo, a lot of liberal Republicans changed their party allegiance to Democratic in order to vote in that primary. Most haven’t bothered to switch back, leaving a more right wing base of primary voters, ones likely in the current climate to back his opponent. Specter’s best chance at re-election is as a Democrat.
Yet the driving force of this change is a strong current in the Republican party to shift to the right. The base, not used to not having power, and believing that the failure of the GOP under Bush was caused too little adherence to the core right wing agenda, believe the best way to get back in power is to firmly grasp conservative “principles” and do all they can to stop the “socialism” of the Obama administration. Moreover, they are committed to what they call a “culture war” over things like same sex marriage and abortion. Pragmatic Republicans who compromise and see a ‘culture war’ as a bit silly are skewered as “RINOS” – or ‘Republican in Name Only.” They want an exclusive club.
The Democrats, on the other hand, have embraced pro-life, pro-gun, and more conservative candidates, including Specter, whose position on labor issues often contradicts Obama’s. The Democrats learned that the key to winning a majority is to have candidates that speak to the constituency of a particular state. A pro-gun pro-life conservative Democrat is a better choice for a state like Georgia, while in urban centers you might have Democrats who truly are socialist. The Obama administration has to ride herd on this cacophony of Democratic voices, but if it can craft compromises and make deals, it can get a lot done.
Here in Maine, moderate pro-choice Republican Olympia Snowe is dismayed by the way the Republican party is changing. In the northeast, where few Republicans get elected to office, the red meat right wing agenda has little appeal. To be Republican here is to distrust centralized government, be fiscally conservative, support a strong military, and see individual rights as paramount. On issues like abortion, gay marriage, and most social issues there are divisions. The libertarian side of the party is at least as strong as the socially conservative side. Moreover, there is a New England pragmatism that refuses to look at issues like health care and immigration in purely ideological terms. There are problems to be solved, let’s make compromises and deal with them.
Looking at the demographics of the country, there is little reason to expect a more ‘ideologically pure’ Republican party to succeed. Perhaps they think that “when Obama fails” the public will simply turn to them as the only alternative, and then they can implement their agenda. But that’s delusional thinking. Bush arguably was failing in 2004, but still defeated Kerry. And despite the fact the GOP and President Bush were immensely unpopular in 2008, if it wasn’t for the economic crisis and McCain’s weak campaign (and pick of Sarah Palin for VP), the Republicans might have still pulled off a victory. People compare the parties, they don’t just dismiss one and choose the other. Obama gave people a sense of hope and confidence, while projecting pragmatism. If he had spouted left wing slogans, he’d have lost.
This inward spiral of the GOP is, however, typical of parties who lose power. Not wanting to accept it, or knowing what to do next, the activists — usually the most extreme — push hard and develop a more extreme agenda. Almost always this leads to electoral defeat after electoral defeat. This causes party leaders to resign, and their replacements recognize that they need a more inclusive vision.
At first they drift towards mirroring the other party. This happened in Great Britain after the Labour party fell from power in 1979. They veered far left, and after a series of loses Tony Blair shifted the party to the center, and accepted many of changes conservative Margaret Thatcher had put in place. This took the Labour party 18 years. In Germany the Social Democrats followed a similar path after losing power in 1982, only regaining it 16 years later with Gerhard Schroeder steering the party to the center.
Unlike the UK and Germany, the US has a Presidential rather than a parliamentary system, and therefore it is possible for a charismatic and effective leader to hasten the change. However, just winning the Presidency isn’t enough, as proven by Nixon in 1968 and Clinton in 1992. Nixon governed as a rather liberal President, while Clinton turned out relatively conservative. The cycle tends to be first the losing party goes into the wilderness and tries to figure out its identity in a new political era. This often leads to activists and extremists defining the agenda. Then as a new group of leaders get sick of failure, they make compromises and become a “light” version of the dominant party, making inroads as the dominant party starts making errors due to being in power too long or not noticing changes in public opinion. Finally, the new dominant party loses big as the party that had lost power rebuilds and develops a new creative message with a popular leader. Such realignments are rare — the last two were in 1980 and now 2008. The also tend to take place in times of economic trouble.
So what are Republicans to do? Until they reject playing to the far right and trying to engage in unwinnable culture wars, they are likely to be in the wilderness. People blame their philosophy for the economic collapse, and criticism of Obama ‘pandering’ to foreign leaders is ineffective given the foreign policy failures laid at the feet of the GOP. People want a President who gets along with others. Making gay marriage a rallying issue actually helps the gay marriage cause, that’s how unpopular the far right has become. Support for gay marriage leaped from 33% to 44% in recent months. The public isn’t about to get emotional about that issue when the economy seems to be in collapse.
Ultimately, they need to come around to recognizing that while their base has to be listened to, a two party system requires inclusive and diverse parties. They need a Snowe-Collins-Specter approach to forcing the Democrats to compromise in the Senate. The strident ‘get rid of the Rinos’ attitude only limits their power, placing less of a check on the Democrats. And while some may think that will hasten Democratic failure, the policy changes that get put in place may be impossible to turn back.
So to my two Senators — Snowe and Collins — I’d say wait it out. The party will come back to you. The country needs moderate Republicans ready to create a functional check and balance system that allows compromise and cooperation. In fact, you can still serve that function working with conservative Democrats. In some ways the Northeast is looking today like a mirror of the Southeast after Reagan’s election, when conservative Democrats switched parties and the GOP became dominant. That’s not healthy, two viable parties are good for the nation, and for individual states.
The GOP is not dead. But the extremist wing’s agenda is obsolete and anachronistic. They are holding on to it and have enough support that they think they can revive it. In time, those illusions will fade, and a new vision will be developed to speak to a new era, and address the Democratic mistakes that are sure to be made in coming years. C’est la politique. The political pendulum swings, the Republic endures.