A Once-United G.O.P. Emerges, in Identity Crisis
By SAM TANENHAUS
Published: November 5, 2008
One by one, prized Republican strongholds fell Tuesday night and yesterday. Ohio and Indiana, Florida and Virginia, Colorado and Nevada — all succumbed to Senator Barack Obama. And for conservatives it was as disorienting a day as any in the history of the movement that has been a dominant force in shaping modern American politics.
One thing was clear: the Republican Party was no longer the party of George W. Bush. But exactly whose party was it, and whose should it become? Senator John McCain never quite succeeded in presenting a coherent alternative version. Can someone else do better?
The answers that have emerged so far reflect the party’s current confusion. A coalition once notable for its disciplined unity is now threatened by sectarian rifts that could widen significantly in the weeks ahead. Already, neoconservative defense hawks are pitted against isolationists, libertarian antitax brigades resist the values-driven politics of social conservatives, and the party’s intellectuals operate at a growing remove from the base.
Consider the case of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. To some conservatives — including several scheduled to attend a brainstorming meeting in Virginia on Thursday — Ms. Palin represents the party’s fresh-faced future. She personifies the values of small-town evangelicals, and her Western style lends piquancy to her populist mockery of Beltway elites and what she has called “the permanent political establishment.”
And yet that establishment includes Republicans like Colin Powell, Mr. Bush’s former secretary of state, and Kenneth M. Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s final White House chief of staff, both of whom voiced their dismay at Ms. Palin’s presence on the ticket and declared their support for Mr. Obama shortly before Election Day.
Meanwhile, party operatives, crunching the unfriendly numbers, are rethinking the red state versus blue state election model mastered by tacticians like Karl Rove. Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, wants the party to redirect its energies toward voters in the populous states of the Northeast and the Great Lakes region. James Greer, the Republican chairman of Florida, believes the party must adjust to changing demographics. “The party needs to focus on Hispanic voters and African-American voters,” Mr. Greer told The New York Times. “It is the future of the Republican Party.”
But the hunt for votes is only part of the problem. There is, more fundamentally, the question of what the two parties have to say and how they say it. Longstanding ideological debates, in particular, seem increasingly irrelevant and out of date.
It may well be that some of Mr. Obama’s positions are to the left of the nation’s at large — as Mr. McCain and others asserted time and again. But it may also be that most Americans do not much care. What seems to have impressed them is Mr. Obama’s attunement to the problems afflicting the country and the hope he offered that they might be solved.
If so, then Republicans may have to jettison some of the most familiar items on their agenda. “The issues that have provided conservatives with victories in the past — particularly welfare and crime — have been rendered irrelevant by success,” Michael Gerson, the Bush speechwriter turned columnist, wrote last week. “The issues of the moment — income stagnation, climate disruption, massive demographic shifts and health care access — seem strange, unexplored land for many in the movement.”
In fact these “issues of the moment” have been with us for years now, decades in some instances, but until recently they were either ignored by conservatives or dismissed as the hobby-horses of alarmist liberals or entrenched “special interests.”
The key word in Mr. Gerson’s analysis is “movement,” a term more applicable to moral or spiritual crusades than to the practical matters of governance, particularly governance in a two-party system, where success almost invariably requires compromise, consensus and a mind open to all manner of workable solutions.
These have not been, historically, the strength of “movement conservatives,” who prefer arguments built on first principles often expressed in supercharged rhetoric. “Conservatives seem to have a genius for winning the all-important semantic battles,” the policy thinker and journalist Richard N. Goodwin wrote in 1967. “Anti-union laws become ‘right to work’; national health insurance becomes ‘socialized medicine.’ ”
Some 40 years later, there are conservatives who still inveigh against the perils of socialized medicine. In the last weeks of the campaign, Mr. Obama was repeatedly labeled a “socialist” — a word all but emptied of meaning today when nations like China and Russia have lustily embraced the free market even as a Republican president proposes a $700 billion bailout of failing Wall Street firms. And yet even after Tuesday’s results, some were still clinging to the old rhetoric. An Obama presidency will “deliver socialism, something too many of his supporters never saw coming,” L. Brent Bozell, one of the expected participants in the Virginia meeting, wrote Wednesday on National Review online.
But if movement politics disdains nuance, its insistence on “core” principles lends steel to its adherents, who are inclined to regard all defeats, even major ones, as temporary setbacks.
This highlights a profound temperamental difference between the parties. The Democrats, more inclined in recent decades to pragmatism, have tended to bow to popular will even in close elections. President Bush, though he lost the popular vote in 2000 and though many believed that the Florida recount was unjustly halted by the Supreme Court, nonetheless had little trouble pushing his first initiatives through Congress, including one of the largest tax cuts in history.
When Mr. Reagan was elected in 1980, he probably stood farther to the right of the public of his time than Mr. Obama stands to its left today. Only two years before, in the Congressional election of 1978, Democrats held on to substantial majorities in both houses of Congress, despite the troubled leadership of President Jimmy Carter. And there was little tangible evidence that voters had embraced the supply-side economics that became a cornerstone of Reaganism.
But when Republicans achieved a slight majority in the Senate to go along with the Reagan landslide, Democrats, still in the majority in the House, accepted much of his agenda, in deference to the public’s will and also in recognition that a new era in politics had arrived.
This history forms a telling contrast with 1992, when Bill Clinton amassed an impressive total of electoral votes, 370, and went to Washington with large majorities in the Senate and House. Owing to the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, Mr. Clinton received only 43 percent of the popular vote — still 5 percent higher than the incumbent, the first President Bush, and a more conclusive victory than the younger Mr. Bush achieved in 2004. But conservatives sensed weakness, and the Republican Senate leader at the time, Bob Dole, put Mr. Clinton on notice.
“He didn’t get a majority,” Mr. Dole said the next day. The country, he added, “had plenty of doubts about Clinton. They want change. Well, we want to be responsible and deliver change, whatever that means, but we’re skeptical so we’ll wait and see.”
This set the tone for Mr. Clinton’s presidency, which remained embattled for two terms. Mr. Dole repeatedly used the filibuster to thwart Mr. Clinton, and in his second term Mr. Clinton was locked in a war with Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House, who for a time appeared to be the dominant partner in their uneasy relationship.
Mr. Obama has an advantage: He attained both a majority of the popular vote and a strong electoral victory.
The topics scheduled for the conservative conference on Thursday, according to one participant, include a discussion of how to rebuild a “national grass-roots political and policy coalition” modeled on the one conservatives put together in the 1970s, when in the waning days of liberal hegemony, Beltway organizations like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation extruded position papers, and publications like The Public Interest and Commentary became citadels of conservative ideology. Movements are conditioned to absorb setbacks and losses. Tuesday’s election is the latest, and probably not the last. It has given the Republican Party a fresh challenge — one it has not shied from in the past.