It’s My Party, And I’ll Crash It If I Want To

Dick Polman inspects the “smoking wreckage” that is the Republican Party:

Once upon a time, long before the GOP plummeted to its current status as the Southern and Rural Older White Guy Party, it actually was home to a healthy subspecies known as the Republican moderate.

These moderates roamed the land, cutting deals with Democrats, winning statewide elections, and broadening the GOP’s appeal. Pennsylvania alone was fertile turf for people like William Scranton, Richard Schweiker, John Heinz, Hugh Scott, and Arlen Specter. But now, of course, that era is over. Specter has quit the party one step ahead of his own extinction – yet another sign that the Republicans, in their self-defeating quest for ideological purity, have ceased to be a national party.

Naturally, the conservative true-believers are thrilled that Specter is gone (“good riddance”); they’ve somehow convinced themselves that the loss of yet another Republican Senate seat constitutes a great victory. It’s delusional. The more the party shrinks, the happier they seem. I marvel at their ability to resolutely march through the smoking wreckage, all the while insisting that it smells like perfume.

Let us briefly sift the ashes. The party right now has no coherent message, aside from “Do Not Offend Rush Limbaugh.” Its messengers are basically conservatives who speak to the choir. It has virtually zilch appeal beyond its base, as evidenced by the ’08 election and every subsequent poll; the party is alienating suburbanites, independents, Latinos (the fastest-growing cohort in the electorate), and people under age 30 (the voters who will dominate for the next half century).

A respected nonpartisan group, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, summed it up perfectly in a winter report: “The GOP is out of contention in New England and the West. It is getting out of contention in the Mid-Atlantic states and the industrial Midwest. Its bases of former support in the farm Midwest, mountain states, and the South are eroding.

“The only places where the GOP enjoys a durable advantage are Idaho, Utah, Kansas, Nebraska, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas. And with the growth of the Latino population, Texas will likely be at least a toss-up state within the next decade.” (Actually, pollsters report that 48 percent of Texas Republicans are so angry with President Obama that they want their state to secede from the union. Isn’t that unpatriotic? Whatever happened to “My country, right or wrong”?)

Anyway, the GOP’s “durable advantage” has been reduced to 10 red states. Two new national polls report that only 20 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, the lowest figure in decades. The holdouts – nationally, and, as Specter discovered, in Pennsylvania – tend to be those who will tolerate no detours from conservative orthodoxy, nor tolerate kind words for Obama.

Specter has left behind a narrowcasted party that would rather marinate in its anger and paranoia than win elections in states outside the heartland and the Old Confederacy. How else to explain the burgeoning popularity of Glenn Beck, the Fox News host, who has been warning of a fascist plot hatched by Democrats? (I’m not kidding. Beck says there’s a fascist symbol on the back of the dime in your pocket – a bundle of rods with an axe – and points out that a Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, approved that artwork in 1916.)

The Financial Times shifts the metaphor from smoking wreckage to a sinking ocean liner:

How much trouble is the Republican party in? Plenty. Compounding its recent miseries, too numerous to mention, Arlen Specter, the independent-minded senator for Pennsylvania, has gone over to the other side.

If the Democrats win the still-disputed vote in Minnesota, they will have 60 Senate seats – the supermajority they need to overcome filibusters and force measures to a vote. They already have a commanding majority in the House of Representatives. In short, power in Washington has just shifted further, and perhaps decisively, in Barack Obama’s direction.
Mr Specter has jumped across the aisle to improve his chances of getting re-elected next year. As a Republican these were slim to none, because he faced a primary-election challenge from a conservative more popular with Republicans. As a Democrat with Mr Obama’s backing, he might get a clear run in his new party’s primary. Running against said conservative in the general election, he can expect an easy win.

Up to now Mr Specter has had to worry about what conservatives in the Republican party think of him. Henceforth he will care more about the good opinion of liberal Democrats. Independent-minded as he may be, Mr Specter needs the support of his new party, so it would be strange if his defection did not push him to the left. That, combined with the prospect of the magic 60 votes, makes efforts to play down his defection look desperate.

Many Republicans, however, even affect to welcome his choice – and here lies the real significance of Mr Specter’s decision. Newt Gingrich, former leader of Republicans in the House and still one of the party’s leading thinkers, believes that the Democrats will overreach and that it is better, when they do, that the blame is all theirs. This makes some sense. What makes no sense at all is the even more prevalent view in the party that fence-sitters such as Mr Specter should have been purged already – that the path back to power lies in ideological purity and a re-energised conservative base.

One thinks of the British Labour party’s reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979. Labour lost because it had not been socialist enough, was the party’s diagnosis: it needed to be truer to itself. Having forgotten how you win elections – namely, by occupying the middle ground – the party then lost its desire to win them. Better to be true to your principles and out of power than to compromise. True to its principles, it was out of power for nearly 20 years, and the Thatcher revolution transformed the country.

The Republicans’ emulation of this proven model of political failure takes on an even more farcical aspect when you consider the conservative ideas to which party purists say they want to return. Labour under Michael Foot at least had an alternative programme of policy and a leader – almost any is better than none – to enunciate it. Republicans have neither. Their platform, if you can call it that, is a compendium of slogans and prejudices, bound together by disgust at the Obama administration. With the economy in its present state, this is no time to be saying “government is the problem” – especially if you have nothing further to add and the economy’s troubles are universally understood to be the legacy of a Republican president.

The party needs to frame practical, coherent, and above all centrist alternatives to what Mr Obama and his congressional allies are doing. Instead, it wants to shore up its base, chant its slogans and purge its moderates. You have to laugh. …

And so we do. And hope they never wise up.

One Response to “It’s My Party, And I’ll Crash It If I Want To”

  1. BVasvary says:

    And the republican party is just waiting around in hopes of saying, “I told you so.” What a great strategy. Let ’em. We could sure use 40 years of democratic rule. The democratic party can be counted on to shoot itself in the foot, they say. OK. Let’s see.

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