Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Reinvented Republican

Thomas Edsall is wondering today if the Republican Party is insane. A good question and a worthwhile column, though he's working through material a lot of other political analysts have been parsing for a while. One of his conclusions resembles my post from last week, that the Republican base is out of step with the rest of America, but powerful enough to keep the House in the uncompromising hands of the GOP. Nor is their intransigence showing any signs of disappearing. Here's Edsall:
A part of the Republican problem lies in the party’s disproportionate dependence on white Southern voters. These voters are well to the right of the rest of the nation, and they elect the dominant block of hard-right conservatives in the House. Of the 234 Republican members of the House, 97 — two-fifths — come from the 11 Confederate states, and these 97 are almost uniformly opposed to negotiation of any kind with Democrats.
Taking into consideration this fact about the Republicans, let's try to imagine a competitive national Republican contender for the White House—someone who can win the enthusiasm of this base (essential for the primaries) and win enough of the rest of the country to get 270 electoral votes. It's difficult. Perhaps it's not utterly inconceivable, but it's pretty damn difficult. And hoping against hope to put together such a patchwork national coalition of Republican voters will get harder each 4 year cycle.

None of this is news. It's what every non-right wing pundit (and a few right wingers too) have been saying ever since Obama was reelected—5 out of 6 elections and all that. But no one can push beyond this point, which is why I suppose Edsall is writing about the same thing everyone else has already written about. The trouble is that the reality of the Republican political dilemma is so problematic and so entrenched in its history as a party for white alpha males, that to construct a profile of a new kind of viable Republican is beyond the scope of our imagination.

But a reinvented Republican is needed if the party wants to return to the White House. If they don't, the GOP can content themselves with the remaining an obstructionist Congressional voting bloc by taking Ross Douthat's recent words to heart:
Political parties don’t exist because of political visions, and don’t need them to survive. They exist because they represent interests, and they can represent those interests reasonably effectively — especially in a system that empowers minority parties — without an overarching vision of the common good.
Unfortunately a vision for the common good is necessary if you want more people in the country to vote for you than the other candidate, which brings us back to the problem of a new kind of Republican. The history of party systems and elections might help give some sense to what I'm talking about. Presidential politics has usually been the history of party dominance, not party equity. Consider the White House occupants in the major American party systems:
  • The Second Party System: Whigs vs. Democrats from Jackson's time to 1854-ish, when the Whigs fell apart. The Democrats won every election but two. Both times the Whigs won the presidency, their candidate died in office. William H. Harrison famously died one month into office from pneumonia contracted when giving his inaugural address in the rain. Bad luck, but worse that his veep selection, John Tyler, was basically a Democrat on all policy positions, so the Whigs really had 4 years of the presidency in about 26 years of the system.
  • The Third and Fourth Party Systems: The third system incorporates the rather stunning rise of the Republican Party in 1854 from disaffected Whigs, Know Nothings, and Free-Soilers. The fourth system is really just a political designation for the Progressive Era. Both systems were dominated by the Republicans. Between 1854 and 1932 only three Democrats won the White House, James Buchanan (who barely defeated the first presidential Republican candidate, John C. Fremont in 1856), Grover Cleveland, and Woodrow Wilson. Cleveland won because he wasn't corrupt. Wilson won when Roosevelt's third-party bid split the Republican vote with Taft. So in the 72 years after Lincoln took office in 1860, Democrats had just 16 in the White House.
  • The Fifth Party System: the New Deal coalition. After FDR unseamed Hoover from his free market nave to his classically liberal chops, Democrats controlled the White House for all but two elections, Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, between 1932 and 1968. The Republicans had 8 years out of 36 in the White House.
  • There is some ambiguity here as we approach the present. If the Sixth Party System is meant to designate a political formulation in which Republican power is drawn from their dominance of South, then we are still operating within that system and have been ever since George Wallace took the South away from Democrats in 1968 for good. But maybe the Sixth Party System is more useful as a term that indicates the presidential success of the Republican resurgence in opposition to the Great Society. If that is the case, then it probably ended around 1992 with the election of Clinton and the triumph of the New Democrats.
There are a few points to take away from this brief history. First, electoral dominance has not meant another party has had no chance to win, but this has occurred for reasons transcending longstanding party policies, usually scandal or party fatigue. So Grover Cleveland won because he was not quite so corrupt as the many Republican administrations preceding him; Eisenhower won because of weariness with FDR/Truman and Korea (and he had been courted by both parties). Carter won because of his outsider status after Watergate. But the broader trend in party dominance was not undone by these intermittent victories by the other party.

Second, when party dominance is broken, the candidate who brings his party back into the ascendancy in no way resembles the roster of losers that came from the prior party system, or even the winners that predated them. Abraham Lincoln had been a northern Whig in the 1840s, but he won as a Republican in 1860 by campaigning to stop the spread of slavery. When FDR won in 1932, the patrician, erudite New Yorker didn't look at all like the Old South Democrats or the party bosses of the 19th century. Nixon and Reagan were not Barry Goldwater, but neither were they Coolidge or Hoover. And Clintonian politics were not like McGovern or Mondale, or Lyndon Johnson before them.

Which means that a new kind of Republican has to be created. If we are in a period of Democratic Party presidential dominance, then Republicans have two paths before them. They can either build a more creative party apparatus that allows for unlikely kinds of candidates to emerge and challenge the status quo. Or they can wither away and wait for a rising third party to replace them by representing a healthier, more attractive form of conservatism. Both paths will require a long time in the wilderness and a reinvented Republican that does not appear to exist as of yet.

*Head over to the handy site to look at the electoral results of any election.

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