Column for 7 June, 2009

The Life of the Party

“Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in:  Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire.  Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.’”

                                                                                                            –Nehemiah 12:17

In 1974, following a Democratic congressional landslide and Richard Nixon’s forced abdication, there was quite a bit of talk about the extinction of the Republican Party, some of it coming from Republicans themselves.  Just six years later, Ronald Reagan triumphed, becoming the first candidate to defeat an incumbent president since 1932 and ushering in a major realignment of American politics.  When Democrats were turned out of Congress in 1994, and especially after George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, many pundits heralded the coming of a permanent Republican electoral majority.  Now, the GOP lies in tatters–hemorrhaging supporters, disorganized, demoralized and bankrupt fiscally, morally and politically.  What happened?  Couple of things.  First, like 1994, the current Republican malaise is partly due to demographics and partly to personalities.  Newt Gingrich notwithstanding, 1994 had little if anything to do with the Contract with America, which most voters knew nothing about.  They did, however, know about Bill Clinton, a president who squandered his early popularity with some truly extraordinary ineptitude.  So, too, the Republicans benefitted from demographic trends away from the Northeast and towards the South and the collapse of the Democratic Party among white southerners, a process which had been ongoing (as predicted by LBJ) since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  By the same token, Democrats benefitted in 2006 and 2008 from the near extermination of the GOP in New England and the Northeast and from large numbers of new younger voters who are repelled by shrill, hectoring social conservatism.  Like Bill Clinton in 1994, George W. Bush had by 2006 become the political equivalent of toxic waste, reducing Republican congressional candidates to the farce of literally sneaking the President of the United States in through the back door to fundraisers and then whisking him out of town lest they be contaminated by his mere presence in the public eye.  Like Congressional Democrats in the 1990’s, Congressional Republicans were wracked by a series of mortifying corruption scandals.  In the aftermath of these defeats, there are worse signs—like having a bloated, drug-addled, preening loudmouth like Rush Limbaugh as the de facto head of the party, forcing an endless parade of GOP office-holders to prostrate themselves before him for daring even the mildest criticism of his magnificence, like so many Holy Roman Emperors kneeling in the snow.  In fact, the entire Right Wing Howler Monkey Media Chorus, from Limbaugh to FOX “News” to hate radio, has become one giant festering albatross.  It was useful back in the day, to rally the ultra-conservative base with raw meat, but now that there’s nothing left of the party but the base, the shrieking, frothing racism and mindless insults are driving off moderate voters and especially Hispanics.  Screaming “Socialist!  Unclean!” at President Obama is not really much of a strategy.  In fact, it’s kind of pathetic.  The Voter ID Bill which was slouching inexorably through the Texas Legislature this session until Rep. Jim Dunnam hammered a parliamentary stake through its heart is yet another sign of GOP desperation.  In the absence of even one single verifiable instance of voter impersonation (the only type of voter fraud the bill could conceivably cure), Republicans are essentially forced to concede that the only real purpose of the act is to make it harder for traditional Democratic constituencies—minorities and the poor—to vote.  I’m sorry, but if your margin of victory is less than the relatively small number of people Voter ID would disenfranchise, you are headed for an electoral beating, which probably goes a long way towards explaining why the Republican majority in the State House has been steadily eroded down to a grand total of one.  If you have the likes of Rick Perry as a spokes twit, using the threat of secession and his proud shield of historical ignorance as a talking point, that doesn’t say much for you, either.  So what is the long-term prognosis for the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt?  Not good, frankly.  Unless Republicans can make their brand more appealing to younger voters and Hispanics (which will require jettisoning the culture warriors who are currently the only reliable GOP supporters left), they risk dooming themselves to a forlorn existence as a purely regional party of the Deep South, not unlike the Democrats from the end of Reconstruction until the arrival of FDR.  Like the Democrats, their only hope will be in a major disaster by the opposition, becoming in effect political vultures.  And so far, the party “leadership”—such as it is—is demonstrating a bunker mentality, essentially a belief that the voters are stupid and they’ll be sorry some day and they’ll come crawling back.  I remember hearing the same sort of petulance at a meeting of Harris County Democrats in December of 1994, right after the devastating congressional elections, where one speaker described the suburbs as “the idiot belt.”  As a general rule, insulting the electorate is also not a very effective strategy.  As things now stand, the GOP seems to be sliding towards some sort of kamikaze, Hard Right, Goldwater-esque sacrificial lamb nominee in 2012.  If Democrats, not to mention late-night comedians, are very lucky, it will be the hilariously obtuse Sarah Palin.  What will emerge from the rubble of that catastrophe is anyone’s guess.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. <>

    The truly sad thing is, that strategy has worked time and time again for both parties. In the absence of any compelling new policy ideas or agendas, all the party out of power has to do is wait, and eventually the party in power will implode. Could be four years, could be twelve or more, but eventually it will happen. The two-party mentality is too deeply engrained in the American psyche for that to change any time soon.

  2. The sad thing is, we always need an effective opposition party to blunt the excesses of the dominant party, and we most certainly don’t have that right now. I know that’s not an original thought, but I can’t recall when the opposition party has ever been “led” by such a contingent of willfully ignorant goobers whose only thought seems to be hoping that the country fails, or is attacked again, or some such thing.

    I’m a committed liberal Democrat, but I hate that the GOP has totally ceased to be a respectable, thinking organization. We’re better off if the opposition is at least credible, and today’s Republican Party is the furthest thing from credible at this point.

  3. I agree completely. Moreover, I think the country needs an effective CONSERVATIVE opposition, someone to, in the immortal words of William F. Buckley, stand athwart the tide of history and shout “STOP!”

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