The future of the elephant

More talk of what the future holds for the Republican Party.


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Thomas Schaller
November 12, 2008 12:51AM (UTC)

Adam Nagourney has an interesting piece about the future of the suddenly embattled Republican Party. We will soon be publishing here at Salon a conversation about this very subject conducted with three very smart Republicans -- Alex Castellanos, Ron Christie and Reihan Salam -- who offered many great insights about where the Republican Party stands today, where it is headed and what the party needs to do to get there. (I'd love to divulge who the trio forecasts as the likely 2012 GOP presidential nominee, but you'll have to wait for that.)

For all the talk this past week about a Democratic realignment, allow me to say a few things about the prospects of that happening and, relatedly, the possibility of a GOP comeback.

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First, anybody who says we are experiencing a realignment is full of it. A realignment has three characteristics -- it is a sudden, significant and durable shift in the partisanship of the country. The "sudden" condition has been met: We went, in just four years and two cycles post-2004, from talking about a Republican realignment to talking about a Democratic one. Significant? My colleague Larry Bartels at Princeton rates 2008 as about one-third of a realignment. So the magnitude is not yet clear, though we can see what happens in 2010 and beyond. Which brings us to durability, and the reason nobody can say a realignment is happening in real time: It has to endure. So while many of the conditions for a realignment are in evidence, we will have to check back in 20 years.

Second, as Castellanos pointed out in the Washington Post last week, it took a whole lot of favorable factors to defeat the Republicans. He's right. The Democrats were advantaged historically (hard to win three presidential races in a row); opinionwise (Bush approval in the toilet, right track/wrong track numbers); by economic indicators; by scandals and market collapse; by a more unified and excited party. Not to mention almost every candidate effect except maybe John McCain's bio and brand favored the Democrats: Better message, better rhetor, better field organization, more money, better running mate, more Democratic surrogates and so on.

Still, one reason to think there is a realignment in the making is that the GOP just seems in a lot of trouble. Its core themes remain strong and clear (national defense, small government, family values). The problem is that there remains little to no policy meat on those ideological bones and, post-Obama, the GOP suddenly finds itself strategically and tactically inferior and with a much thinner bench. I mean, look at the list of people Nagourney mentions as potential future national Republican figures: Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin, Haley Barbour ... are you kidding me?

It really is amazing that the same internal hand-wringing and soul-searching in which  Democrats were engaged just four years ago has shifted to the GOP.


Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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