Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Quandry for the GOP

The Republican Party is in a shameful, embarrassing shambles. The leadership is divided between extremist Southerners in Congress, an ineffectual, hapless party leader, and celebrity fire-breathers like Rush Limbaugh, odious in their personal hypocrisy to most of the Americans the GOP would in other times be trying to woo.

It is an interesting paradox that, during times of political collapse, the rival party understands far more clearly how the collapsing party got there. They have spent years or decades in the political wilderness documenting the tiny oscillations in the political and world reality that might allow them the toehold they need to regain power. The erstwhile ruling party, meanwhile, has developed such a habit of setting the agenda that it has forgotten there is any daylight between its rhetoric and reality. Once the collapse comes, the fallen party has thrown away the very tools it requires to regain power--the ability to see political reality and understand the mood of the electorate, the intellectual chops to compete with the upstart party, humility, and moderation.

Of course, history doesn't repeat itself, it just rhymes. The current collapse is marked by circumstances only possible at this point in history. Let's review.
  • Cognitive dysphasia. In their minds, Republicans are still the competent, freedom-loving, small government party of Reagan. They cannot--will not--reconcile this ideal with Bush's massive government bloat, torture, and economic collapse.
  • Intellectual vacuity. It's not 1983. You wouldn't know it by hearing the unchanged rhetoric of the party. Socialism? Have the aging Reaganites forgotten that they "won" that war?
  • Corruption. Both parties have enjoyed the thuggish corruption of men like Jack Abramoff (even if the GOP had a hell of a lot more of them over the past 10 years). The real corruption that the party needs to worry about--but of course, isn't--is represented by the perversion of the Justice Department.
  • Incompetence. Sayeth Republicans: nothing to see here, la la la la la, keep moving on. See "cognitive dysphasia."
  • Anti-intellectualism. The Republican Party managed to regain power almost exclusively through the support of Christian conservatives. Books have been written about this trend--which began reasonably enough as a reaction against "moral decay"--and metastasised into Joe the Plumber, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin. (Fantastic book: American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips.)
  • Regionalism. It wasn't only the GOP that was seduced by the power of Dixie--Dems were, too. But by linking their party to culture mores represented by people who disliked or were suspicious of urban-dwellers, non-whites, and the educated, the Party now finds itself led almost exclusively by people from the South.
Every one of these elements was either masked (incompetence) or held as a virtue (anti-intellectualism, regionalism) until even two years ago. The GOP, as is the case with all recently-fallen parties, is in denial. They either don't see the fault--few Republicans will cop to their party's corruption or incompetence--or think it's a messaging problem. Most Republicans still hang on to the idea that they're the ruling party and that all they need to do is find the proper message to regain the support of the people. Democrats suffered this confusion through the 80s and 90s. They were coming around to reality in the late 90s, but it took Bush to turn them into hard-boiled realists.

The Republicans are in a bad situation. Structurally, they're being led by the most extreme, most distasteful members of the party. It's no wonder that Fox News is seeing a spike in viewership--the only Republicans left are the true believers, and they're under a siege mentality. The politicians who still have support live in places where those extreme voters remain. They're being pressured to get more conservative. The media support comes only from the most radical, whose viewers are also on the fringe. While Limbaugh can remain one of the most powerful talk show hosts with 10 million viewers, a party that adopts his approach is absolutely doomed.

I've been listening to an evolving discussion among Republicans about where they go from here, and there are two camps. One is led by the fire-breathers. The second is led by people like David Frum and David Brooks (and Utah's Jon Huntsman, one of the few elected officials in this camp), who are trying to revitalize the party's intellectual and policy bona fides. The problem is that it's no longer in their hands. Limbaugh is right about one thing: the only way the GOP gets back into power anytime soon is if the Democrats implode as spectacularly as the Bush- and Delay-led Republicans. No wonder he's rooting for failure. This is the really brutal thing about being in the minority party; your success depends on things outside your control.

I'm my cursory reading of political history is a guide, what we can expect is a continued decline by the GOP, leading to a rival faction, more moderate, more willing to accept the terms of the debate as set by the Democrats. This faction will grow in authority within the party and create a bridge to a new generation of smart, principled, authentically conservative leaders who will start coming into power after the Obama era enters its second or third decade. The pendulum will slow, eventually stop, and these new conservatives will lead the charge as it heads the other direction.

For those of us watching from the other sideline, the GOP is doing everything right to prolong their time in the wilderness. We know that reality will play a forceful role in how things unfold, and the Obama years are going to be an accelerant in one direction or another. But the GOP needs to be able to step up if reality takes a break their way. As long as they're being led by the same old dinosaurs who are blind to the problems that led to the downfall, they're not ready to step up.