Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Is the GOP kaput?

Yes and no.

Looking at it from just this year's election perspective, we can see two seemingly contradictory trends. One is in the presidential race, where McCain has a moderate but distinctive advantage, even against Hillary Clinton, the stronger of the two remaining Democratic contenders. The other is in the Congressional elections, where the Republicans are still in real trouble, as much trouble as they were in back in 2006.

The root of the trouble remains what is was then: no political party has so swiftly abandoned what it purported to represent after achieving such dominance. This development certainly alienated the conservative base, a trend already visible as far back as the 1998 elections. But the party's fecklessness with regard to spending and reorientation towards big guvmint has also alienated right-leaning independent voters and conservative Democrats. Even without being conservative purists, they find less and less reason to vote Republican. It's hard to find a comparable example of a party squandering its natural advantages so completely, so quickly.

It may be past time for what remains of the conservative movement to abandon the baggage of traditional conservatism. It once had a reason and a role. But it's becoming clearer every day that the rhetoric of traditional Anglo-American conservatism - appealing to traditional moral and political authority, patriotism, and religion, while opposing the growth of government - is incoherent, at least under modern conditions.

It leads to weird paradoxes, like the revival of respect for governmental and presidential authority under Reagan, who was opposed to the ambitions and pretensions of modern government; or the abuse of governmental authority by Bush, even while he still uses the rhetoric of conservatism. The ultimate upshot is that such a contradiction has to be solved and has been, by moving in a Nixonian direction - traditional authority, patriotism, and morality tied to massive growth of government. The parallel move of conservative and moderate Democrats to the Republican party means the party has a whole new constituency to serve and a new type of right-leaning populist politician. The most striking sign is the rise of Mike Huckabee, the Christian minister and nanny-statist, who came in second overall in the Republican primaries. Such a politician would have been unthinkable in the GOP even as recently as 15 years ago.

A new sort of coalition is needed, perhaps taking a page from "liberal" parties in other countries, using "liberal" for once in its real meaning: smaller government, market-oriented, and individualist - without the traditionalist, moralistic, and populist baggage. The pieces of such a coalition are at hand. But we don't yet have politicians to lead it. Voters thinking that Obama fits the bill are deluding themselves. He's the most left-leaning presidential candidate in American history, although he lacks much political definition. His politics are a throwback. Even Hillary Clinton, as left as she is, is not such an antique. From the present wreckage of the GOP, such a beginning can be made by liberal Republicans and center-right independents. But it will take a lot more to regroup and reassert the limited government message. (May 29)

POSTSCRIPT: Kimberley Strassel has made a similar argument over at the Wall Street Journal: McCain needs to run against Congress. It's not just that it's controlled right now by the Democrats and has the lowest poll ratings ever recorded. The Congressional Republicans need the wake-up call as well. McCain has contributed in his own way to the present debacle, above all with the ridiculous and unconstitutional McCain-Feingold political speech and finance restrictions.* But he does have significant credibility on spending and not falling into the braindead partisan lockstep that led to the Republican losses in 2006. (May 30)

POST-POSTSCRIPT: Jon Henke of the fascinating Web site, The Next Right, concludes about the Republicans in a way very similar to my distinction among liberal, conservative, and big-government-populist (miracles not math!) Republicans. He correctly points to the rise and fall of the third group, the marginalization of the second, and the surprise resurgence of the first. Henke's been guest-blogging over at Megan McArdle's joint. Maybe someone out there is paying attention to me, and I'm not just bloviating into the silence of cyberspace :) (June 1)
* Ironically, McCain himself has opted out of public campaign financing, because of its onerous restrictions.

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