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The Path to Republican Revival

At some point about five years ago, America became a “One-Party Country”—and the party in question was the GOP. Such, at least, was the conclusion of Los Angeles Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten in the book they wrote under that title following the 2004 presidential election. Bizarre as their claim may sound today, it stood on solid ground. In November 2004, George W. Bush had won re-election with the largest number of votes up to that point in American history while racking up the seventh Republican win in the previous 10 races for the White House. Republicans, moreover, were in control of the Senate by a margin of 10 seats, and of the House by a margin of 30. To complete the sweep, they also boasted a majority of the nation’s governorships and a plurality of state legislatures.

In short, Republicans had reached their most impregnable point of strength in the modern era, a fact hardly lost on their glum and battered adversaries in the Democratic and liberal camp. As “euphoric” as were Republicans, wrote the New Republic’s Peter Beinart at the time, “the intensity of their happiness can’t match the intensity of our despair.”

But then came the reversal, sudden and swift. Today, after two punishing election losses in 2006 and 2008, in the course of which Democrats gained 15 Senate seats, 54 House seats, and the White House, the GOP is now the minority party, Democrats are rejoicing, and many Republicans have lapsed into a state of near panic. “Are the Republicans going extinct?” Time asked in a dramatic cover story. “And can the death march be stopped?”

It can—though it is indisputably true that the challenges facing Republicans are the stiffest since the years immediately following Watergate.

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Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was the most sweeping since 1980. He became the first Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson 44 years earlier to garner more than 50.1 percent of the vote. In the process, he took seven states that had twice voted for George W. Bush, including two (Indiana and Virginia) that had not gone Democratic since 1964. In the Senate, Democrats hold a filibuster-proof 60 seats, the largest margin for either party since 1978. In the House, Democrats hold 257 seats to the GOP’s 178. Twenty-nine out of the nation’s 50 governorships are now in Democratic hands.

Democratic electoral dominance is reflected in other numbers as well. In every age group between 18 and 85, Gallup reported in May, Democrats enjoy an advantage over Republicans among those identifying themselves with a political party. In a Pew study earlier this year, self-identified Democrats outran self-identified Republicans by 11 percentage points. “On nearly every dimension,” the study concluded, “the Republican party is at a low ebb—from image, to morale, to demographic vitality.”

The reasons for the vertiginous decline are both proximate and long term. At the top of the list, surely, is the Iraq war—a venture that, at the outset, had garnered the support of more than 70 percent of the public and strong majorities in both the Senate and House. But that support quickly unraveled. The Bush administration never fully recovered from the revelation that Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and many Americans came to believe, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that the administration had “lied” the country into war. Add to this an Iraqi insurgency the White House did not adequately anticipate and an occupation strategy poorly conceived and poorly executed, and one had the makings of massive political erosion. By the time Bush embraced a new and successful counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, it was too late for Republicans. The public had grown bone-weary of the war and blamed both the president and his party.

The GOP was also hurt badly by well-founded charges of congressional corruption. This, arguably, was the most salient factor behind the Democratic gain of more than 30 House seats in the 2006 midterm elections. “Not since the House bank check-kiting scandal of the early 1990s have so many seats been affected by scandals,” an article in the Washington Post put it a few days before the election. Democrats turned the GOP’s “culture of corruption” into a rallying cry of their campaign, and it worked.

Finally, among major proximate causes there was the economic crisis of late 2008. By September, the GOP’s presidential candidate, John McCain, had clawed his way into a statistical dead heat with Obama and was even leading in some polls. But then came the collapse of the investment giants Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, the freezing of credit markets, wild fluctuations on Wall Street, and fears of an imminent depression. As the party most closely identified with Wall Street, bankers, and capitalism, the GOP was inevitably held accountable. And none of this is to mention the other issues contributing their share to the party’s decline, from the mishandled response to Hurricane Katrina to the failure of efforts to reform immigration policy and the Social Security system.

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Behind and beyond all these difficulties, the GOP has been facing even more fundamental problems. The first might be called the curse of policy success. Thanks in large part to a series of conservative achievements, the major domestic challenges facing Americans a generation ago—runaway welfare statistics, crime, drug use, high marginal tax rates—have been significantly ameliorated even if not yet fully overcome. This, ironically, has deprived Republicans of some of their more time-tested talking points in partisan conflict.

A second problem is demographic. Obama took the presidency with the help of a “coalition of the ascendant” (the phrase is the analyst Ronald Brownstein’s): young people, Hispanics, and other growing elements of American society. One of those elements is white voters with college or postgraduate degrees, among whom Obama prevailed handily. By contrast, McCain enjoyed a decisive plurality among -non-college-educated whites—a segment that accounted for 53 percent of the overall electorate as recently as 1992 but that now stands at only 39 percent.

A third long-term challenge is geographical. Over the past five presidential elections, Brownstein writes, Democrats have built a “blue wall” consisting of 18 states and the District of Columbia; these account for fully 90 percent of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency. In addition, Democrats control most of the Senate seats from those same 18 states, as well as more than 70 percent of the House seats, two-thirds of the governorships, every state House chamber, and all but two of the state Senates. In the Northeast, Republicans now hold just 18 percent of U.S. House seats and only one-seventh of U.S. Senate seats. Some parts of the country are nearly devoid of Republican -representation.

Is it any wonder that many observers are now prepared to consign the GOP to the dustbin of history? “Today,” proclaims the Democratic strategist James Carville, “a Democratic majority is emerging, and it’s my hypothesis, one I share with a great many others, that this majority will guarantee the Democrats remain in power for the next 40 years.” In the judgment of Sidney Blumenthal, author of The Strange Death of Republican America, “no one can even envision when the Republicans will control the presidency and both houses of the Congress as they did as recently as 2006.” Adds Michael Lind: “The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States.”

Now who’s “euphoric”?

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It turns out intoxication takes one only so far in politics. Indeed, over the past six months a combination of factors has already begun to counteract some of the Democrats’ post-November inebriation.

Facing a severe fiscal crisis as he entered office, Obama chose to meet it by indulging his seemingly limitless faith in the power of government to solve every human ill. The president who had campaigned by loudly decrying the debt accrued during the Bush years promptly took steps that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, bid fair to double the national debt in six years and nearly triple it in 10. In the meantime, his signature $787 billion stimulus package, hurriedly put together and loaded with pork, has largely failed to stimulate where stimulation was most needed. Unemployment rates have risen far beyond the administration’s gloomiest forecasts, and problems with the economy remain deep and durable. On the foreign-policy side, the self-confidence of presidential rhetoric has sometimes been undermined by the irresolution of presidential behavior.

Chinks in Obama’s supposedly impenetrable armor were already appearing by May, when Republicans pulled slightly ahead of Democrats in some polls of public confidence. In July, a survey by the polling company Rasmussen Reports comparing the parties on 10 issues showed Republicans leading in eight (immigration, government ethics, national security, Iraq, taxes, Social Security, abortion, and the economy); the previous October, Democrats had led on all 10.

The public’s chief worry about Obama centers, naturally, on the economy. Specifically, the worry is over government spending, and it is reflected in the results of a series of state referenda; even in such a deeply blue state as California, citizens by huge margins have voted down a spate of spending propositions. This year’s federal expenditures will rise to more than 28 percent of GDP, a level exceeded only at the height of World War II; the deficit for the fiscal year is projected at more than $1.8 trillion. Worse, instead of paring down ambitions in the face of such runaway figures, the Obama administration has undertaken a recklessly expensive domestic agenda, including an attempt to nationalize American health care.

So staggering is the scope of this effort to increase the federal government’s size, reach, and spending that not a few Democrats themselves have had to warn of the consequences of massive miscalculation and hubris. Nationally, according to a June New York Times–CBS poll, voters by a 2-1 margin do not believe Obama has developed a clear plan for dealing with the deficit, and a majority reject the president’s plan to stimulate the economy at the cost of higher deficits.

Confidence in government itself is near a historical low, and confidence in even bigger government is practically negligible. According to Gallup, only 13 percent want to see a permanently expanded role for government, which is exactly what Obama aims to give them. Among independent voters, according to a Wall Street Journal–NBC News survey, the president’s job-approval rating fell from 60 percent in April to 45 percent in June. These last figures represent “a clear and important danger” for the president, according to the Democratic pollster Peter Hart; independents formed a crucial Obama constituency in 2008, and “this administration is leaning much more Left than they expected.” In general, and however impressive Obama’s 2008 win in purely partisan terms, it remains the case, in the words of a recent Pew survey, that there has been “no consistent movement away from conservatism, nor a shift toward liberalism” in the country’s basic ideological disposition.

Nor are the demographic advantages now enjoyed by the Democrats necessarily immovable. Sustaining Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” may prove difficult, particularly among the key cohort of Hispanics. Republicans, following the example set by George W. Bush, could regain support among members of this large and variegated group. Pulling in the GOP’s favor are the growth among many Hispanics of Protestant evangelicalism (a factor that helped both Bush and McCain) and the steady progress of Hispanic assimilation. Younger voters will not blame George W. Bush forever if they find themselves unable to find work at decent wages, especially as they begin to think of beginning families.

Obama’s overreach has created a measure of opportunity for Republicans. The question is whether that opportunity will be grasped. Can Republicans overcome their manifest problems and succeed in preparing themselves for a restoration of public trust, and can they do so not only by appealing to new groups but also by offering compelling answers to pressing public needs?

Herewith, a brief primer.

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Any serious attempt to revivify the GOP might begin with a full-throated stand for a strong national defense.

The United States, after all, is engaged in two hot wars—in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Pakistan, the situation is fragile and, if things go badly, potentially catastrophic. North Korea is an already existing nuclear threat; Iran is rapidly becoming one. While Obama has acted impressively in some areas, especially in Afghanistan, his response to crisis has often been timid and tardy and nowhere more delinquent than during the recent spontaneous revolt of Iran’s citizens against the dictatorship of the mullahs.

Obama’s effective freeze of defense spending over the next five years is inconsistent with American global commitments. Republicans would be astute to offer as an alternative an increase in defense spending in the range of 4 percent real growth per year, including support for an ambitious missile-defense program to counter the rising ballistic threats from North Korea and Iran. Obama’s worldwide apology tours radiate a weakness that arouses hope among America’s enemies, dismay among America’s allies, and discomfiture among many American citizens. As for his trust in diplomacy and charm, they have, to say the least, shown themselves to be ineffectual in motivating despots to change their ways. Obama has already been defied, and he will be defied again, and how he responds will go a long way toward determining the safety of the country and the course of his presidency.

In response, some Republicans have been tempted to promote their own brand of retreat from global engagement out of the belief that, the cause of democratic internationalism having been severely damaged by the war in Iraq, the GOP should seize the mantle of foreign policy “realism.” Thankfully, the Republicans who nominated John McCain in 2008 did not succumb to this temptation, and it would be disastrous if the party were to yield to it in the future. A durable national consensus holds that American interests are served by the promotion of free trade and classical liberal ideas. With the spread of weapons of mass destruction, it has never been clearer that America and the world have the most to fear from dictatorship and radicalism, the most to gain from liberalization and reform.

A moral component to our foreign policy is, moreover, part of the American DNA. It would have been impossible to maintain the seemingly endless exertions of the Cold War without the American people’s instinctual concern for those held captive and their no less instinctual abhorrence of oppression. The same is true in the conflict with Islamist extremism and other current global challenges. Americans have an interest in liberty and human rights because they are Americans—and because America’s safety is served by the hope and health of others. Republicans can be forthright about the foreign-policy tradition that mixes toughness with generosity, the willingness to confront threats forcefully with the active promotion of development, health, and human rights. Since the midpoint of the last century, this has been the GOP’s watchword. Among younger Americans focused on global issues like genocide, poverty, women’s rights, religious liberty, malaria, and HIV/AIDS, it can resonate loudly.

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Republicans will also have to put forth a comprehensive reform agenda. There is no shortage of issues at the federal level: converting the labyrinthine U.S. tax code into something far less burdensome and far more family-friendly; repairing a budget process that is broken, corrupt, and inefficient; developing a modern-day regulatory system in the aftermath of the collapse of our financial institutions; remaking a tort system that imposes wholly unnecessary upward pressure on the costs of health care; insisting that foreign-aid expenditures are both generous and outcome-oriented; and so forth.

Take as an example education, which is, for most Americans, an essential element of the common good and a primary task of government. Reform of our dismally ineffective system of public education was begun in the Bush years, based on the understanding that broad improvement depended on regularly testing students in the basics of reading and math and imposing consequences on schools unable or unwilling to raise performance levels. The natural next step in the process would be to bring accountability to the teaching profession itself, by paying teachers not just for showing up but for excelling. Effective reform means rewarding superior teachers through merit pay and encouraging poor teachers to seek employment elsewhere. Certification procedures need to be changed to attract qualified instructors now barred from teaching by the self-dealing rules of the teachers’ unions. Public charter schools need to be supported at every turn. Priority needs to be given to high-quality research and data collection, the indispensable requirements for meaningful reform.

With education, as with banks and auto companies, the Obama administration seems bent on shoring up failure. Here is where Republican officeholders, at every level of government and in every area of public policy, could provide a contrast: by speaking out for clear performance standards, by focusing on good results rather than on good intentions, and by recruiting strong minds in the service of what works and can be shown to work.

If education is one critical arena for demonstrating contrast between the parties’ respective approaches, another central arena is health care. More than anything else the new administration has attempted, ObamaCare would fundamentally alter for the worse the government’s relationship to the polity and the economy. It would entail imposing cost controls through the inevitable rationing of medical care itself, thus putting the state in charge of life-and-death decisions. By effectively nationalizing the health-care system, it would create universal dependency on the federal bureaucracy (a body that, whatever its other virtues, has not been hitherto known for medical expertise, let alone for signal powers of human empathy) while hugely amplifying the worst deficiencies of Medicare and running up catastrophic debt. Effective Republican opposition could vividly point out these dangers while offering alternatives that would produce far better results, empowering individuals to purchase their own health insurance and control their own health care while maintaining the American edge in medical research and innovation.

As it happens, the GOP has successful reformers to whom it can look to and learn from, including popular governors or former governors like Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal, and Jeb Bush. Daniels’s health-care plan in Indiana facilitated the transfer of money previously consigned to Medicaid into individual health-savings accounts and simultaneously extended coverage to more than 130,000 uninsured individuals. In a state carried by Obama last year, Daniels won re-election by 18 points. The Daniels plan is worth emulating on its own merits. Politically, it is worth studying as a case history in what the country cries out for: leadership dedicated to fixing what can be fixed at a cost that can be afforded and in a spirit of inclusiveness untainted by class resentment and a manipulated antipathy toward “the rich.”

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Then there is the key question of immigration. No national party can hope to succeed in the long run without broad support among immigrants and the children of immigrants—particularly, these days, Hispanics and Asian Americans. Immigrants, like other Americans, hold a variety of views on American immigration law and on how it has been applied. But uniformly they resent being made into debating foils. Republican leaders have a positive duty to confront careless rhetoric and to appeal consistently to new Americans, welcoming their overwhelmingly positive contributions to the American economy and American values. During the last presidential primary season, most Republican candidates, to their party’s cost, were no-shows at Hispanic forums.

But the Republican appeal to immigrants is fundamentally different from the ethnic politics often practiced by Democrats who attempt to play on grievances rather than appeal to common values. To succeed, the Republican argument requires communicating that growing ethnic diversity does not undermine but rather strengthens the American ideal. But an even more powerful argument lies in the appeal to social mobility: the idea that, in America, economic and social dynamism is what offers striving individuals the prospect of success and wealth.

This is true for immigrants because it is true for the native-born poor and it is true for all. It is, in, fact, vital for Republican leaders to press the case for economic growth in general. Americans achieve their dreams not through the redistribution of wealth but through the creation of wealth. As the late Jack Kemp never tired of stressing, growth-oriented economic policies are a simple matter of justice and equity. At the same time, they offer fertile opportunity for innovation by applying conservative and free-market ideas to the task of encouraging savings and wealth-building among the aspiring poor, rather than debt and dependency. Such innovative ideas can range from local efforts to nurture financial literacy to ambitious KidSave proposals that would create savings accounts for every child at birth, subsidized for low-income families. Whatever its particular expression in policy, asset-building should be a hallmark of the Republican party, on the sound theory that ownership encourages social mobility, community, and family stability.

In this last connection, and again with an eye toward immigrants and the poor, the GOP would be wise to strengthen its reputation as the party of community and order. Republican rhetoric can sound intensely individualistic, as if to suggest that once government impediments were cleared away, all persons and all families would thrive as a matter of course. Individual freedom is indeed central to conservatism but so is the belief that individual freedom is given purpose and direction in the context of strong communities. It is a staple of conservatism that strong social bonds are essential to human flourishing.

Besides, it is patently clear that most Americans do not locate the source of all of today’s social ills in an overactive government. They are also worried about an economy that has come to seem treacherously unstable; a popular culture that assaults the souls of their children; schools and neighborhoods drained of respect and order; and, particularly in cities and densely packed suburbs, a degraded moral and physical -environment.

In this respect, Republicans would be well advised here to borrow a page from David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith in their revival of the British Conservative party. These leaders have emphasized a range of issues that directly influence the quality of life in community: homelessness, addiction, prison reform, family breakdown, long-term unemployment. As yet, Republicans have no comparable agenda to address such issues of social justice from a conservative perspective. This, as we noted earlier, may be partly owing to the curse of previous success, which has allowed the issue of social justice to be seized by Democrats. But, to invoke a historical reference, the GOP must be the party of both Adam Smiths: the free-market champion who wrote The Wealth of Nations and the moral philosopher who authored The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Like Smith in the 18th century, the party of the 21st century must uphold the paramount virtues of freedom and the “invisible hand” and the no less paramount truth that the free life is nurtured and sustained in community.

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Running through this account of domestic and national-security issues is an attitude toward public life and toward public discourse. Tone and bearing are terribly undervalued commodities in American politics. On the whole, people drawn to a party like to feel that those representing the party are both amiable and peaceable. This hardly precludes conviction and tough-mindedness when it comes to articulating policy. Democracy was designed for disagreement, and the proper role of an opposition party is to oppose. But anger, personal attack, and extreme language do nothing to expand the appeal of a party in trouble.

Unfortunately, this point has been lost on some members of the Religious Right, whose scolding approach has created a significant backlash, especially among young people (including young Christians). It has also been lost on the party’s more abrasive populists, with their habit of pitting the heartland—aka the “real” America—against the denizens of the coasts. This not only vitiates their own claim to seriousness; it almost willfully alienates the very groups and regions that Republicans need to attract. There is no magic formula when it comes to dealing with such matters of tone, temperament, and the right use of language. They are admittedly delicate things to measure, but they are no less crucial for that.

Running through this analysis is, as well, an attitude toward government. No party founded by Abraham Lincoln—a president who advocated internal improvements while being simultaneously prepared to maintain the Union by force—can consider itself simply and purely antigovernment. Nor does such an attitude befit a conservatism inspired by the writings of the same Edmund Burke who averred that God, “Who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection—He willed therefore the state.” (By “perfection,” Burke meant human improvement.) Skepticism toward government, however warranted and indeed necessary, is not the same as outright hostility.

This is not to deny for a moment that the federal government is far too large and intrusive, too ossified and inefficient, and has failed too often to meet its basic duties or do enough to warrant public trust. Republicans are known to worry about large, overly ambitious government, and President Obama has fueled those worries with a vengeance. His expansion of government has united in opposition both deficit hawks and advocates of growth, each properly concerned that his policies will lead to massive tax increases, the monetization of debt and massive inflation, or both. As a result, Republicans have perhaps their best opportunity in a generation and a half to advance a reasoned and reasonable case for limited government. The opportunity should not be squandered.

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Parties in power often overreach. Triumph can unleash their least attractive elements, which then run up against the challenges of the world as it is. When their political plans meet with upset, the perceived strengths of a president can quickly become weaknesses in the public mind. We have seen this before, and we may be seeing it again as President Obama’s coolness and caution are judged as covers for arrogance and indecision.

Often, for an opposition party, the best counsel is patience and consistency. Many Republicans, hankering for a banner around which to rally, talk of a “return to Reagan.” The idea is attractive because Reagan was attractive. But as a strategy, it hardly suffices. The electorate that gave its vote to Reagan in the 1980s has changed and is continuing to change, demographically and generationally. And the ills of the GOP are not so trivial or temporary as to be healable by invoking a new-old face. Republican leaders need leeway to reshape the appeal of their tarnished institution, just as Reagan did, patiently and consistently, over the years he spent preparing his run for the presidency. The need of the moment is not for greater “ideological purity” (a phrase which Reagan himself abhorred) but for greater clarity; not for louder voices but for more thoughtful and persuasive ones; not for retrenchment but for outreach; not for building a bridge to the past but for creativity and innovation for the moment and for the future.

In the 1980s, one of the Republican party’s main sources of attraction to younger conservatives—we are thinking of our younger selves, among legions of others—was its growing reputation for intellectual vitality. “Of a sudden,” wrote Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.” Restoring that reputation, to be earned now as then through carefully argued and compellingly articulated programs of reform, is a central challenge. We have witnessed a collapse of confidence in our public institutions, whose manifest failures the Obama Democrats seem prepared, on a gargantuan scale, to subsidize and therefore to aggrandize. Positioning Republicans as the advocates of modern, accountable, responsive institutions would strike a politically powerful chord. It is where the work of renewal must begin and whence it can be carried forward.

About the Author

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.




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