The GOP on the verge of imploding

A look at how radicalism has forced the Republican Party to retreat.

Published April 24, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

On May 3, 2007, ten Republican candidates aspiring to succeed George W. Bush as president debated at the Ronald W. Reagan Library, where they mentioned Reagan 21 times and Bush not once. By raising the icon of Reagan, they hoped to dispel the shadow of Bush. Reagan himself had often invoked magic -- "the magic of the marketplace" was among his trademark phrases and he had been the TV host at the grand opening of Disneyland, "the Magic Kingdom," in 1955. Evoking his name was an act of sympathetic magic in the vain hope that its mere mention would transfer his success to his pretenders and transport them back to the heyday of Republican rule.

Bush's second term has witnessed the great unraveling of the Republican coalition. After nearly two generations of political dominance, the Republican coalition has rapidly disintegrated under the stress of Bush's failures and the Republicans' scandals and disgrace. The Democrats have the greatest possible opening in more than a generation -- potentially. They should pay strict attention to how Bush has swiftly undone Republican strengths as an object lesson.

On September 10, 2001, Bush was at the lowest point in public approval of any president that early in his term. It was a sign that he seemed destined to join the list of previous presidents who had gained the office without popular majorities and served only one term. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Bush's fortunes were reversed, and he was no longer seen as drifting but masterful. Now he appeared to take his place in the long line of Republican presidents who had preceded him. He acted as though his astronomical popularity in the aftermath of September 11 ratified whatever radical course he might take in international affairs and vindicated whatever radical policies and politics he might follow at home.

Vice President Dick Cheney assumed control of concentrating unfettered executive power, a project to which he had been devoted since he had served as the assistant to presidential counselor Donald Rumsfeld in the Nixon White House. Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, took charge of subordinating federal departments and agencies to the larger political goal of achieving a permanent Republican realignment through a one party state -- another Nixonian objective, run by another Nixonian. Cheney and Rove's complementary efforts gave the substance to the radical theory of the "unitary executive."

In 2004, Bush swaggered through his reelection campaign, still swept along on the momentum from September 11. He and Rove did not consider the perverse and unprecedented illogic of Bush v. Gore as anything but a rightful decision. They did not see the means by which he became president as artificial, making his position inherently weak and unstable. Bush took occupying the office itself and September 11 as tantamount to a resounding mandate for his radicalism. Nor did Bush or Rove view Bush's steady and precipitous decline in popularity as cause to reconsider their preconceptions. After the Afghanistan invasion, Bush's numbers tumbled until he ramped up the campaign for the invasion of Iraq, after which his standing dived again, only to spike once more after the capture of Saddam Hussein, only to fall again. Nonetheless, Rove drew no lessons from these warnings, except that war and terror served as indispensable political weapons to sustain Bush. On this rock, Rove proposed to build a reigning party.

After the 2004 election victory, Rove's former political deputy and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman said, "If there's one empire I want built, it's the George Bush empire."

Perhaps the most considered, comprehensive and boldest analysis after the 2004 election came from two English journalists, writers for The Economist magazine, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. In their book, The Right Nation, they conflated Bush's unilateralism, the religious right, and the conservative counter-establishment of think tanks and foundations with American exceptionalism. "Today, thanks in large part to the strength of the Right Nation, American exceptionalism is reasserting itself with a vengeance."

They categorically declared that the realignment Rove was seeking had at last appeared. Bush's reelection was the crowning moment of the entire Republican era, setting it on a firm foundation for a generation to come. "Who would have imagined that the 2004 presidential election would represent something of a last chance for the Democrats?" they wrote. "But conservatism's progress goes much deeper than the gains that the Republican Party has made over the past half century or the steady decline in Democratic registration. The Right clearly has ideology momentum on its side in much the same way that the Left had momentum in the 1960s."

The Economist's correspondents were Tories in search of a promised land after the Labour Party became the natural party of government in Britain with the post-Thatcher crackup of the Conservatives. The United States was a fantastic canvas for their thwarted dreams. They were delirious to discover that while conservatism had fallen from grace and favor in Britain it held every lever of national power in the New World. "Thatcher could never rely on a vibrant conservative movement to support her (unless you regard a couple of think tanks as a movement) while American conservatism has been going from strength to strength for decades," they wrote with undisguised envy.

At least in one way the Republican triumph in 2004 echoed British political history, resembling that of the British Liberal Party in 1910. "From that victory they never recovered," wrote George Dangerfield in The Strange Death of Liberal England. But the strange death of Republican America, the supposed "Right Nation," cannot be attributed to the same reasons as the decline of Liberal England, a complacent faith of good intentions bypassed and trampled by events that it presumed to understand as it drifted into the dark passage of world war.

The guiding assumption of American politics was that Bush's presidency was girded by a stable conservative consensus and that politics would operate on this consensus into the foreseeable future. In this view, Bush became not only the most recent expression of Republican supremacy but also its strongest. It was a curious refraction of the consensus school of the 1950s that envisioned American politics as an unbroken thread of liberalism.

According to the consensus school, the dissimilarities between American and European politics -- ravaged in the 20th century by wars and totalitarian movements -- suggested an essential consensus predating the creation of the nation rooted in the thought of John Locke. "The American community is a liberal community," wrote the historian Louis Hartz in his highly influential The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955. That same year, William F. Buckley, Jr., launching the modern conservative movement in the first issue of National Review, wrote that conservatism "stands athwart history, yelling Stop." By 2004, after Bush's victory, conservatives were triumphalist. "The 2004 election was about as clear a vindication as we could have hoped for," wrote Micklethwait and Wooldridge. And "that conservatism is the dominant force in American politics and that conservatism explains why America is different." Turning the old consensus thesis on its head, they argued that the American community is a conservative community.

For long periods of time political alignments shift incrementally and slowly. But our politics also has a volatile history, not always placid, erupting suddenly and sharply through cataclysms, and often as a result of violence. The Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Vietnam War and the civil rights revolution were earthquakes that abruptly overturned long settled arrangements. When Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928, his landslide victory was universally seen as the peak of Republican Party consolidation, the culmination of the party's progress since the Civil War. Similarly, when Lyndon Johnson was elected in 1964, his landslide was interpreted as the apotheosis of the New Deal. For two generations the Republicans have been running on the themes and infrastructure developed since the Democratic collapse in 1968.

The scale of the Bush disaster is larger than any cataclysm since then. Whether or not there is a powerful geopolitical analogy between Iraq and Vietnam wars, as Bush first insistently denied, then vehemently argued, there is a pertinent domestic political analogy. Vietnam ended a Democratic era as definitively as Iraq is closing a Republican one.

Republicanism at its pinnacle -- during the Reagan years -- had been an easy identity for adherents to wear. With the recession of 1982 a memory, tax rates especially for the wealthy drastically lowered, and the country at peace amid the Cold War, President Reagan demanded no sacrifice or pain. His carefree attitude disdained the Protestant ethic, with banker's hours that conveyed there was no relationship between hard work and reward. His sunny disposition had removed the scowl of Richard Nixon and the stain of Watergate from the party. Yet Reagan's landslide of 49 states in 1984 echoed Nixon's landslide of 49 states in 1972. One famous victory was built on the other, one Californian paving the way for another. Nixon's work of realignment as well as his self-destruction made possible the rise of Reagan, who had been his rival for the Republican nomination in 1968.

Conservatives prefer to date the origins of the Republican ascent to the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. But it was his defeat followed by the shattering of the Johnson presidency over Vietnam that cleared the path for the resurrection of Richard Nixon, who was the main progenitor of the Republican rise. Only on the ruins of the Goldwater debacle was Nixon able to capture the Republican nomination in 1968. He was the author of the project for an imperial presidency. Watergate, a concatenation of plots, was an emanation of that grand design, both to create an unaccountable executive and harness the federal government into a political machine for what Nixon first called a "New Majority." The 1974 Final Report of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities documented the Senate Watergate Committee's investigation into Nixon's effort to use "the powers of incumbency" through programs such as "the Responsiveness Program," created to "redirect Federal moneys to specific administration supporters and to target groups and geographic areas to benefit" his campaign.

If Nixon had succeeded in his plan, the U.S. government and politics would have taken very different forms. But his resignation shattered the center in the Republican Party, and Nixon made possible not only Jimmy Carter but also Ronald Reagan. The traditional Republican center attempted to hold under Gerald Ford, but it could not cohere, even within Ford's own White House where it was undermined by the team of his successive chiefs of staff, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

The Republican fall parallels the previous decline of the Democrats. From 1968 through 1988, the story of the Democratic Party had been its internal disintegration and reduction to its base.

The Republican Party dominance was not illusory, mere smoke and mirrors, though it did have superior image-making too. After the enfranchisement of black voters in the South in the mid-1960s, whites deserted the Democratic Party and flocked to the Republican Party, eventually creating a GOP Solid South, as Lyndon Johnson had feared when he told his youthful press secretary Bill Moyers upon signing civil rights legislation, "We have lost the South for a generation." The Republicans turned many urban and suburban ethnic Catholics, who had been at the core of the New Deal, into Republicans, by exploiting strategies of racial fear around issues of crime, education, taxation, and housing and by appealing to cultural traditionalism on issues such as abortion and women's rights generally.

The Republicans also won over formerly progressive Western states, through an anti-government states rights Sagebrush rebellion on behalf of local extractive industries. Running for governor in 1966, Reagan tipped California, which had been balanced for decades between liberal Democrats and liberal Republicans, toward the conservative wing of his party. The movement of California into the Republican column signaled the shift of geopolitical equilibrium to the Sun Belt, a new alliance of West and South, and consolidated the Republican Party coalition.

Kevin Phillips, a strategist for the Nixon campaign in 1968, wrote in his seminal book, The Emerging Republican Majority (published the following year), that Nixon's victory "bespoke the end of the New Deal Democratic hegemony and the beginning of a new era in American politics…. Today the interrelated Negro, suburban and Sun Belt migrations have all but destroyed the New Deal coalition." Phillips described how the alignment of the Democratic Party with civil rights ("many Negro demands") provoked a reaction. "The South, the West and the Catholic sidewalks of New York were the focal points of conservative opposition to the welfare liberalism of the federal government..."

Even as he planned to wind down the Vietnam War, Nixon painted antiwar critics and Democrats as unpatriotic and hostile to national security, and for decades the Democrats could not escape the stigma. In defense of his Vietnam policy, Nixon conjured up a "Silent Majority" in opposition to the antiwar movement. This constituency, transmuted a decade later into the so-called "Reagan Democrats," included many of the same former Democrats that had defected to Nixon's banner. A complex of domestic and foreign policy motives drove them: resentment against liberal elites and minorities over social welfare policy; antagonism to the youthful university-based counterculture undermining traditionalism; and liberal softness against Communism supposedly weakening the will to win in Vietnam.

None of these themes, including the anti-Communist one, lost their vitality even after the end of the Vietnam War. Nixon's resignation over Watergate gave the Democrats an opening, but Jimmy Carter's presidency proved a spectacle of Democratic infighting and provided the Republican right the chance to seize control of the party in 1980 by running on an agenda against economic mismanagement and Soviet adventurism. By now conservatism was transformed from a cranky backward looking isolationist fringe into a vigorous, politically skillful movement that had captured and held the commanding heights of the Republican Party.

In 1984, the Democrats nominated Carter's vice president, who, unfairly or not, bore the burden of past ineptitude, to compete with Reagan at a time of peace and prosperity. By August 1984, Gallup found that on the question of "increasing respect for the U.S. overseas," Reagan led Walter Mondale 48 to 33 percent. Reagan's reelection affirmed the Republican era, its national coalition and lock on the presidency.

The Republicans were the dominant political party, even when the parties appeared momentarily and evenly matched in public opinion or when the Democrats controlled one or both houses of the Congress. Democrats invariably bore the burden of defending themselves from past errors, real or imagined, and on positions from gun control to abortion Republicans used "wedge issues" to splinter the Democratic coalition and fuse the Republican one.

The exposure of the Iran-contra scandal during Reagan's second term brought his domestic programs to a grinding halt. This bizarre scandal involved a convoluted effort to create a parallel, secret and illegal U.S. foreign policy, offshore and underground, evading the Congress and the usual channels of the national security apparatus. In 1987, the congressional hearings into the scandal and the Senate's rejection of Reagan's far right nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert Bork, who as Nixon's hatchet man in the "Saturday Night Massacre" had fired the Watergate special prosecutor, had a further radicalizing effect on the right. Meanwhile, Reagan revived his moribund presidency by reversing his course, negotiating an arms control treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and proclaiming the end of the Cold War. Though Republicans from both the right and the center criticized him as a naive utopian, his demarche lifted his fallen popularity and that of his vice president, making possible his election.

The political career of George H.W. Bush illustrated the contradictions of Republicanism and the growing radicalism of the party that his son would later push to an extreme. His difficulties reflect the radicalization of the party going back to 1964 and his circuitous route in navigating its currents. As much as he was overwhelmed by events, the elder Bush was also undermined by his inability to sustain a viable Republican center post-Reagan. For every gesture he made toward fiscal prudence, a traditional Republican virtue, his party punished him. In 1992, former Nixon speechwriter and conservative firebrand Patrick Buchanan challenged Bush for the Republican nomination, capturing 38 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, a humiliation for the incumbent president. Buchanan's insurgency and the right's obstreperousness made it necessary for Bush to lend them the stage of the Republican National Convention in Houston, a disaster for him contributing to his loss in the general election.

The principal lesson the son absorbed from his father's political failure was to avoid having enemies on the right. George W. Bush became what his father never could, a radical conservative, transcending the problems that had plagued the father throughout his career. The son systematically abandoned the father's respect for fiscal responsibility, individual rights, the separation of church and state, the Congress, constitutional checks and balances, and a realistic and bipartisan foreign policy. George W. Bush saw Reagan more than his father as his model, but he was as little like Reagan as he was like his father. Bush's radicalism has provided a vantage point for historical revisionism, causing his Republican predecessors, judged to be avatars of conservatism in their day, as more moderate in perspective. Reagan's pragmatic willingness to negotiate with congressional Democrats on such matters as Social Security, for example, takes on another aspect. But the inexorable movement to the right is inarguable as a historical pattern.

Every time the conservative Republican period seemed to be exhausted it gained new impetus through openings created by Democratic fractiousness and incompetence in politics and governing. With each cycle conservatism reemerged more radicalized -- a steady march further to the right. After Nixon's disgrace in Watergate came Reagan; after the conservative crackup that engulfed George H.W. Bush came the radical Congress elected in 1994, led by Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay; and then came George W. Bush. Bill Clinton's presidency served as an interregnum that might have broken the Republican era for good had his vice president Al Gore been permitted to assume the office he won by a popular majority. But the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court ultimately thwarted him. When the court in Bush v. Gore handed the presidency to Bush it gave him an extraordinary and unnatural chance to extend Republican power.

Only through the will to power in the Florida contest, the deus ex machina of the Supreme Court, and the tragedy of September 11, was Bush able to gain and hold the presidency. But he and the Republicans have been living on borrowed if not stolen time.

Karl Rove believed he could engineer a political realignment by recreating his work in Texas where he marshaled money and focused campaign technology in order to destroy the Democrats. But the analogy of the nation as Texas writ large was faulty from the start. In Texas he had the wind at his back, regardless of how elaborate and clever his machinations. The transformation of Texas in the 1980s and 1990s into a Republican state was a delayed version of Southern realignment. Yet Rove came to Washington believing that the example of Texas could be transferred to the national level. With the attacks of September 11, this seasoned architect of realignment believed he possessed the impetus to enact his theory. It apparently never occurred to Rove or Bush that using Iraq to lock in the political impact of September 11 would ever backfire. In his First Inaugural, Bush spoke of an "angel in the whirlwind," but the whirlwind was of his own making. For all intents and purposes Rove could not have done more damage to the Republican Party than if he had been the control agent for the Manchurian Candidate.

The cataclysm has consumed Rove's theory, his president, his party, and prospects for a Republican majority. The Republicans may take years if not decades to recreate their party, but that project would have to be on a wholly different basis.

The radicalization of the Republican Party is not at an end, but may only be entering a new phase. Loss of the Congress in 2006 is not accepted as reproach. Quite the opposite, it is understood by the Republican right as the result of lack of will and nerve, failure of ideological purity, errant immorality by members of Congress, betrayal by the media, and by moderates within their own party. They may never recover from the election of 2004, when they believed their agenda received majority support and they ecstatically thought they were the "Right Nation."

Herbert Hoover did not transform his party but became its avatar through failure. By contrast, Bush has remade the Republican Party, turning it into a minority party as a consequence of his radicalism. Bush's discredited Republicanism has further provoked the radicalization of its base where religious right and nativist elements are increasingly dominant. The party is in the grip of an intolerant identity politics -- white male semi-rural fundamentalist Protestant -- that seems only to alienate women, suburbanites, Hispanics, and young people. By the end of his presidency, Bush had achieved the long conservative ambition of remaking the Republican Party without an Eastern moderate wing. Once a national coalition, embracing New York and California, Alabama and Illinois, the Republican Party has retreated into the Deep South and Rocky Mountains.

The emergence of Senator John McCain, whose career is notable for his breaks with party orthodoxy and the Right, as the Republican nominee has been made possible only because of the fracturing of the conservative coalition forged since 1968. His strategy would have to encompass states off limits to Republicans for more than a decade and to temper the radicalism of his party, even as he tries to reassure an anxious Right that views him with suspicion. In 1952, the originator of the notion of realignment, political scientist Samuel Lubell, wrote in his seminal work, The Future of American Politics, American politics is not a contest of "two equally competing suns, but a sun and a moon. It is within the majority party that the issues of the day are fought out; while the minority party shines in the reflected radiance of the heat thus generated." When Lubell wrote, even as Dwight Eisenhower was about to win the presidency resoundingly, the Democrats were the sun and the Republicans the moon. Only after Nixon did the parties exchange place in the political solar system. Now after George W. Bush a new Copernican revolution is occurring.

But the Democrats have not yet solidified a new coalition. They may be on the eve of becoming a majority national party for the first time in their history without conservative Southerners at their core. But they may still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, mesmerized by grandiose delusions as if the past were weightless. Just as the Republican collapse under Bush has given the Democrats an unprecedented opening, the Democrats may still find a way to reinvent the Republicans. Even if they win the presidency, the Democrats can only consolidate their future coalition through skillful and successful governing. Only then will they be the sun. In Bush's final days, a new era has not yet dawned, but an old one is setting.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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2004 Elections Books Dick Cheney Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Iran Iraq Karl Rove Middle East