Broadly speaking, the political mood of the public can be gauged in terms of its shifting calculation of risk and reward. If, as in the period from about 1980 to 2004, the promise of new rewards outweighs the fears of accompanying risk, the market-oriented Republicans will be the beneficiaries. But if, as in the period from 1932 to 1966, the fear of risk is more salient than the hope of enhanced rewards, the result will be movement away from free-market policies and towards the presumed protections of government regulation.
For all its benefits, globalization (and the accompanying issues of massive illegal immigration) has brought to an end the period that privileged risk over reward. The Republican Party seems unable to face up to this shift. Some of my GOP friends blame it all on Bush. They rail at the failings of the Bush administration with the kind of vitriol usually reserved for leftists. Others, taken aback by the plunge in Republican party identification, trot out consoling ploys along the lines of “You should have seen the other guy!” Take, for example, Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma. While he acknowledges the unpopularity of the GOP, after a wave of scandals, the setbacks in Iraq, etc., he also emphasizes the misfortunes of the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Cole sees the 2008 election as shaping up like the one in 1992, when incumbents of both parties had a hard time. It’s true that Congress as a whole has only a 29 percent approval rating, lower than that of President Bush. But the problem for the GOP is that, as Washington Post columnist David Broder notes, half of the voters blame Bush and the Republicans; only 25 percent place the onus on the Democrats.
Another excuse Republicans are likely to make is that America is still, largely, a center-Right country. That’s true—but the center has shifted towards the Left. On a range of key issues, from trade to health care to economic inequality, the number of Americans who share some classic Democratic concerns has risen, notes the Wall Street Journal. A recent Pew poll found that “Three-quarters of the population is worried about growing income inequality. Pew also showed that two-thirds of those polled favor government-funded health care for all.” At the same time, Pew reports that “Support for a government safety net for the poor is at its highest level since 1987.”
Republicans have long been the party of de-regulation in the name of freer markets. Yet, a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News Poll finds a dramatic shift by Republican voters against our current free trade policies. Sixty percent “agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.” Indeed, faced with growing competition from inexpensive Chinese imports that don’t have to incorporate the costs of American safety requirements, some U.S. manufacturers are receptive to new regulations that, as they see it, could level the playing field.
The socially-conservative Right is waning as the Left waxes. It’s not just that evangelicals are increasingly divided among themselves. Pew found that between 1987 and this year, support for “old-fashioned values about family and marriage” had dropped 11 percentage points. The percentage of those who said gay teachers should be fired dropped 23 points.” Politicians have noticed. When Fred Thompson was asked by Sean Hannity about James Dobson’s criticism of him, the former senator, once seen as the great social conservative hope, replied curtly “I don’t dance to anyone’s tune.”
With Karl Rove’s fantasies of a GOP realignment having come to an end, Republicans have been pouncing on Bush’s numerous inadequacies. They are all too real, but so are the underlying changes that will be with us after Bush leaves the White House. From the look of things, the Republicans are no more ready to adapt than were their Democratic predecessors of the 1970’s.