The GOP's last chance: Become Democrats

With all trends running against them, Republicans' only hope is to reinvent themselves as pragmatists. That, or nominate Sarah Palin and go out in a blaze of glory.

By Gary Kamiya

Published November 11, 2008 11:40AM (EST)

Surveying the wreckage after American voters gave their party the bum's rush, Republican thinkers have pondered what went wrong, searched their souls -- and decided that the way to regain power is to move further to the right.

In postmortem conferences and symposiums, in right-wing journals and Web sites, on Fox News, the overwhelming consensus among Republican analysts is that the only thing wrong with conservatism is that it isn't conservative enough. In a morning-after National Review symposium titled "How the GOP Got Here," L. Brent Bozell wrote, "The liberal wing of the GOP has caused the collapse of the Republican Party." Richard Viguerie said, "Republicans will make a comeback only after they return to their conservative roots." Other contributors echoed these sentiments. If only McCain had attacked Obama on red-meat issues like immigration or abortion or cloning. If only Bush had not betrayed Reagan's legacy by expanding Medicare. If only conservatives had let Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin.

Pat Buchanan argued on the right-wing site Townhall that McCain lost because he was too deferential to Beltway decorum and refused to take the culture-war gloves off. Noting that McCain refused to raise the Rev. Wright issue and didn't hit Obama on Bill Ayers as hard as he could, Buchanan wrote disapprovingly, "Lee Atwater would not have been so ambivalent."

Predictably taking the hardest line were the braying tribunes of the right-wing plebs, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. The McCain-detesting Coulter wrote, "The only good thing about McCain is that he gave us a genuine conservative, Sarah Palin. He's like one of those insects that lives just long enough to reproduce so that the species can survive. That's why a lot of us are referring to Sarah as 'The One' these days. Like Sarah Connor in 'The Terminator,' Sarah Palin is destined to give birth to a new movement."

Limbaugh managed to refrain from comparing McCain to an insect, but he joined Coulter in anointing Palin the future queen of the Republican Party. Noting that a Rasmussen poll showed that 69 percent of GOP voters love Palin, Limbaugh sneered, "So all of you wizards of smart on our side, all of you intellectualoids who think that Palin was a drag, the party loves Sarah Palin. The vast majority of conservative Republicans love Sarah Palin. Twenty percent of Republicans who say she hurt the ticket, you are probably the ones that need to go and walk and join across the aisle with the others that you find so much more palatable because they are able to communicate and they are writers and they are intellectual ... The party loves her."

It's hardly surprising that buffoonish entertainers like Coulter and Limbaugh are sticking to their guns: Their livelihood depends on catering to the rabid GOP base. But you'd think that the right's cooler heads would realize that something has gone terribly wrong with a party and a movement that can seriously consider nominating Sarah Palin for president.

The right's love affair with the feckless Palin indicates it has learned nothing from the Bush and McCain debacles. Bush's presidency was a decisive refutation of the idea that Republicans can win by playing only to true believers. And McCain's fateful decision to embrace the Bush-Rove play-to-the-base strategy cost him any chance he had at winning the election.

Right-wing ideologues are suffering from massive cognitive dissonance (not to mention a healthy helping of denial). They can't grasp why their party imploded because the vast majority of them always supported Bush and his policies and still do. A few conservative critics have blasted him for lacking fiscal discipline, but most right-wing pundits liked Bush's policies just fine -- until the public turned on him and on McCain.

Some conservatives, like the National Review's Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, have tepidly argued that the GOP must reach out to the middle class. But they don't explain exactly how it's supposed to do this without abandoning its core ideology. McCain made a classic Republican appeal to the "aspirational" middle class by attacking tax increases on the richest Americans, and he promoted a free-market approach to healthcare. But Americans roundly rejected both ideas. Lowry and Ponnuru blame McCain for being a bad salesman, but the real problem is the product.

The painful truth for conservatives is that the dogs aren't eating their dog food -- and every national trend indicates that they will never eat it again. Which means the GOP faces a wrenching choice: remain true to its increasingly irrelevant and rejected ideology and fade into political insignificance, or remake itself as essentially a more moderate version of the Democratic Party.

How could the Newt Gingrich/Karl Rove/George W. Bush juggernaut have crashed so quickly? In fact, the crash has been a long time coming. The American right has been living on borrowed time for years, and in 2008 its luck finally ran out.

The GOP faces two problems for which it has no answers. The first is that its two main branches are fundamentally incompatible. The right has always been divided between a libertarian, free-market, anti-government, no-tax wing, and a traditional-values, moral-issues wing. These are strange bedfellows. Libertarians abhor any kind of coercive policies, no matter how "moral" their aims, whether they're imposed by government or anyone else. They tend to be tolerant on social issues. Traditionalists, many of them devout Christians, regard their version of morality as the highest value and demand coercive governmental measures -- on abortion and gay marriage, for example -- to instill it.

Two things have always held these two branches together: national security concerns, and a sense that however much each branch might dislike some of the GOP's positions, the Democratic alternative was even worse. Both of these unifying factors have now waned, and they seem unlikely ever to return.

The collapse of the USSR fatally damaged the GOP's "tough on national security" appeal. Sept. 11 and Bush's "war on terror" revived it for a while, but when the American people realized that the Iraq war was a disastrous mistake, the terrorist boogeyman shrunk to its rightful proportions. (Sadly for the GOP, fear is not a state that a healthy organism or society wishes to live in for very long.) By crying wolf, Bush weakened the right's ability to use fear as a political tool. As with the economy, Bush's overreaching ended up hastening the demise of the very "movement conservatism" of which he was so loyal and exemplary a servant. Indeed, Bush's "war on terror" opened a new set of fissures in the already-cracked GOP, this time between neoconservative interventionists and old-fashioned conservatives opposed to gratuitous foreign meddling.

As national security has faded, the last thing holding the right together is its hatred of the Democrats and everything they stand for. This glue still binds the party's ideologically driven base. But for the GOP to win national elections, it has to convince moderates of the same thing. And in this election, moderates decisively rejected the Republicans' arguments.

Moderates rejected the GOP for two reasons: because Bush's presidency was a disaster, and because they didn't like the GOP's harsh, ugly tone. That tone is the result of the fact that the party was taken over long ago by "movement conservatives," true believers who bitterly oppose secular modernism and everything associated with it. Their hard-line Jacobinism, imbued with an inchoate sense of angry resentment, drives the right's culture war and animates the movement's base. It has become synonymous with modern conservatism, which is why McCain's ugly campaign was no accident.

The problem is that moderates are completely turned off both by the GOP's performance and by its extreme, demonizing worldview and rhetoric. And the reason they're turned off is that the country's demographics have fundamentally changed -- and changed in a way that makes it impossible for the GOP in its current form to survive.

In their prescient 2002 book, "The Emerging Democratic Majority," John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued that America has undergone a fundamental Democratic realignment over the last few decades. The election vindicated their thesis. In a post-election piece in the New Republic, Judis explains that that realignment "reflects the shift that began decades ago toward a post-industrial economy centered in large urban-suburban metropolitan areas devoted primarily to the production of ideas and services rather than material goods." The key change concerns professionals, who in the 1950s were a tiny minority of the population and who tended to vote Republican. Now they comprise 20 percent of the labor force -- and a majority of them vote Democratic.

What this means, as both Judis and the conservative-but-teetering-on-apostasy New York Times columnist David Brooks have pointed out, is that the Republicans are in danger of becoming the party of Joe Six-pack (or his real-life counterpart Sarah Palin) and Joe Six-pack alone. Perhaps the most noteworthy development in the election is that Obama carried college graduates, possibly the first time a Democrat has ever done that. The Republican majority used to be made up of a combination of working-class whites and wealthy, educated businessmen and professionals. Now the college graduates and the professionals (who vastly outnumber the businessmen) are voting Democratic.

This isn't just an ideological shift, it's a cultural and social one. The new class is steeped in the universalist, tolerant ethos promoted not just in America's schools but in its offices. Its members are liberal on social issues and free of the cultural resentment of "elites" that Palin, in particular, used to appeal to the white working class. They are the new face of America, and for them the GOP's culture war is both irrelevant and offensive.

Above all, they're pragmatic. They want results, and they don't see the government as inherently more destructive of freedom than a multinational corporation. Labels like "liberal" and "conservative" don't mean much to them. They're skeptical about governmental programs but open to them, and they strongly favor government regulation. They support progressive taxation, and are willing to vote against their own pocketbooks as long as Washington delivers. After the Wall Street meltdown and the $700 billion government bailout pushed through by a Republican administration, the right's strident anti-governmentalism and shrill accusations of "socialism" seem ludicrous to them.

As if the rise of the professionals wasn't enough, the GOP also has to deal with the triple whammy of women, Hispanics and young people. All supported Obama, and there's no obvious way for Republicans to win them over without altering the nature of their party.

When you add all these things up, there is nowhere for the GOP in its current form to go. Any action it takes to shore up one group will hurt it more with another. If the right continues to make the culture war its main strategy, it will shore up its base with working-class white men in rural areas. But this "Deliverance" strategy, in which the GOP lets the Democrats have every part of the country where large numbers of people live together and targets lone white men surrounded by vast open spaces, is only a ticket to dominance in places like Utah, Arkansas, Idaho and Oklahoma, with their rich treasure trove of 22 electoral votes. The post-election map already shows a weird correlation between unpopulated areas and Republican votes -- not a trend the GOP should be encouraging.

The only thing that might allow the GOP to postpone its day of reckoning would be a failed Obama presidency -- admittedly a real possibility, considering the daunting obstacles he faces. But if Obama succeeds, the only viable path for the GOP if it wants to continue to be a mainstream political force is to reject its extreme economic libertarianism and its extreme social conservatism, lose its harsh, messianic tone, and remake itself as a moderate party that supports effective government but is wary of excessive Democratic social engineering and is slightly more traditional on social issues. It could also appeal to the center by rejecting neoconservative militarism and returning to a quasi-isolationist stance. (If Obama ends up being a liberal interventionist, this would ironically mean that the parties had reverted to their traditional foreign-policy roles.)

In effect, such a remade GOP would be a Rockefeller or Eisenhower party, one virtually indistinguishable from the right wing of the Democratic Party. This strategy would allow it to survive -- but at the cost of its hardcore base, which would become an embittered and perhaps radical rump movement.

In the coming years we will witness a war between conservatism's pragmatists and its true believers. If the pragmatists win, America will have finally arrived at the era of broad political consensus that pundits erroneously forecast after Lyndon Johnson's demolition of Barry Goldwater in 1964. If the true believers win, we may witness a Palin candidacy in 2012 -- and a likely electoral landslide that will bury the GOP so deeply it may never dig out.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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2008 Elections Ann Coulter Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz. Republican Party