Monday, May 11, 2009

Do Republicans Really Want to Win?

For a long time, I was convinced that the Democratic elite didn't really care about winning. They held their safe seats, and kept the perks that went along with that. Howard Dean, in my opinion changed that, and while some Democratic elites like Pelosi and Reid seem uncomfortable with actual responsibility, the attitude from most Democratic elites is they like power.

Now, however, it seems like Republicans are not really interested in winning. If you are trying to succeed in politics in the US, you need to go about crafting a majority. Karl Rove understood that much. But the difference between the Democrats time in the wilderness and now with the Republicans is that it isn't just elites who don't seem to care about winning, it's rank and file Republicans as well. Fired up by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, they are more interested in purging so-called moderates from their ranks, and engaging in a kind of ideological purification you usually only see once you've taken power.

Is there another explanation for the current Republican obsession with casting out moderates? One way to consider the question is to look at recent events. If you are a conservative or Republican, you probably believe (with some justification) that Obama's election had more to do with dissatisfaction with President Bush than an embrace of liberalism. Similarly, the Democratic Congressional victories in 2006 can also be explained this way. To go along with this vision, many Republicans are emphasizing Bush's departure from basic conservative tenets--immigration reform most notably, but also No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D.

Indeed, a conservative critic of Bush could go further--Bush was not a moderate, he was a Progressive in the mold of Woodrow Wilson. In short, a neo conservative. The battle in the Republican ranks may not be between conservatives and moderates, but rather conservatives and neo-conservatives. This isn't to say moderates are neo-conservatives. But they share more of a common world view than either do with the populist conservatives who currently have the loudest voice in the party. I think there is a fundamental ideological split in the Republican Party, but it isn't between social and economic conservatives, nor is it really between moderates and conservatives. It's progressive neo-cons and populist conservatives.

Cheney's recent comments about Powell notwithstanding, it will be interesting to see how the winds blow going forward.


David said...

WrongBlog lives!

I think what the Republicans are now enduring is in some ways similar to what happened to the Democrats when the New Deal coalition finally, irrevocably shattered between about 1966 and 1980. From an ideological perspective, that coalition--including southern white Dixiecrats, economically liberal/culturally conservative northeastern and midwestern Catholics, African-Americans and very liberal students and young people--never made much sense. But while they held power, everybody had an interest in downplaying the differences.

After Nixon won in 1968, the center of gravity within the party shifted sharply left... and the pieces started shearing off. First the Dixiecrats began to leave, or rather the pace of their departure accelerated. Then the northern white ethnics, more and more turned off by the statism of the remaining factions. Adding in the ideological sorting, which at least initially conferred another benefit upon the Republicans, it wasn't until the late '90s--at which point demographic changes meant that nonwhite, Dem-leaning voters came to comprise a larger share of the electorate--that the Democrats got back more or less to parity.

What I think happened in the last ten years was that, one, better-educated and higher-earning individuals who once leaned toward the Republicans moved toward the Democrats for, ironically, the same reason that white ethnics had left the Ds a generation earlier: they didn't feel welcome anymore. And two, probably more obviously, the sheer ineptitude of the Bush administration and cravenness of the DeLay-led Congress pushed weak partisans and non-ideological voters away from the Republicans. Adding in the Democrats' financial advantages and Obama's superior political skills, it's almost surprising that he didn't win by an even bigger margin.

What's different about the Republicans in 2009 from the Democrats in 1969 is that they're smaller and "purer" (even if they're trying to become purer still), and more completely cut off from power--though I guess a case could be made that they retain dominance in the judiciary much as the Democrats did Congress through the '70s.

At some point, presumably, the balance between "wanting to win" and adherence to dogma will swing back toward a bigger tent--hopefully sooner than later. I'm increasingly worried about what Ross Douthat characterized as the California politics scenario: a bloated, inept and venal Democratic Party keeps winning solely because a relentlessly ideological GOP refuses to acknowledge, much less join, the reality-based community...

David said...

Another point--which I'd meant to make before getting distracted--more germane to your actual post: Obama's policies look to be moderate enough in each of the three major realms of debate (recession economics, the two wars, social issues like gay marriage and abortion) that he can peel off, or at least neutralize, Republicans who care only about one of those areas and disagree with Rush Limbaugh on the other two.

A neocon voter can look at the commitment to Afghanistan and the middle course on torture and decide that's good enough if he happens to share Obama's moderate social liberalism and mildly interventionist economic views. A free-market fetishist voter who's pro-choice and hates the Iraq war can at least tell herself that Obama didn't nationalize the banks. A pro-lifer whose home is at risk of foreclosure might conclude that the plus of the homeowner relief program outweighs the minus of rescinding the global gag rule.

The common theme is that the Democrats, Obama especially, just come across as far less dogmatic than the guys in the minority.

Paul said...

David, as I said, I was not convinced until 2006 that the Democrats wanted to win.

I think the Republicans are in a different kind of crisis than the Democrats were in from the 80s on. The Dems had at least a nominal plurality in terms of voter registration for much of that period. And there never really was the same kind of purge as the Republicans seem to be engaging in. I remember during much of the period many Democrats believed the only way for the party to win was to nominate a Southerner, which was why so many of my liberal and leftist friends were so excited by Clinton's candidacy.