“Ted Cruz could win several important counties in Mississippi.” -David Brooks
Twenty five years ago EJ Dionne Jr. wrote ‘Why Americans Hate Politics’ (1991). That would become my Political Science 101 textbook at Weber State in the winter of 2000, and I read it over pizza in my Ogden basement apartment while watching the Bush-McCain primary results come in on FoxNews. I didn’t much like that book, but this one is better, if shrill and partisan. It sure seems timely and accurate in describing my once proud party, which is about to nominate either a carnival barker (Trump) or a poor man’s Joel Osteen (Cruz) who every Senator hates.
The Republican Party is a character walking around inside the film ‘The Sixth Sense’ these days: basically dead, not at all aware of it. The popular vote for the Presidency went to the Republican 5 out of 6 times from 1968 to 1988, but, counting the shellacking coming this fall, the Republicans will have lost the popular vote 6 out of 7 times since (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, 2016).
Dionne says the party’s path into the wilderness started in 1964, with Barry Goldwater’s forceful convention speech that laid out ideological litmus’ tests and ingrained the idea that compromise and governance are anathema to conservative principles. It is a party whose thinking is backed by 35% of people, but who are ever more convinced their ideas have 65% support. William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan tried to write Ayn Rand out of the Party. Paul Ryan, who is young, handsome, and nice enough to disguise the extremism of his platform, is a moderate who venerates Rand and got drafted for Speaker and may yet get drafted for Presidential candidate.
It is a party that can’t do a political thing on the broad generational culture shifts that have been in motion, but spins them into winning cultural battles and losing culture wars.
The Democrats have captured the middle class and political center because the Republicans don’t even try. Republicans talk in large abstractions about liberty and the role of government, they want to use tax credits and cuts without realizing how little appeal that has for the 47%, and they kowtow to entrepreneurs. Well, Americans work for a paycheck and don’t want their elected officials to end medicare, social security, food stamps, nor Medicaid. And as Ted Cruz said, Obamacare is another item to add to the list, because “once Americans get hooked on it, it can’t be unwound.” The economic power of creative destruction, for as much as can and should be said about it, is certainly not family friendly. Small measures that reduce the anxieties of the market economy are, and will be, popular.
In a country that looks more and more like California, the Republicans are stupidly trending nativist and doing everything they can to drive minority votes away, especially Hispanics and Asians. It is a party that prefers the blood drunk Patton to the peace-building wisdom of Eisenhower; that has exiled George W Bush’s speechwriter David Frum; banished the compassionate conservatism of Jack Kemp; showed the door to moderates like Jon Huntsman; and dreams of finally purging old hands like John McCain and Orrin Hatch. It never did anything of substance for the Rick Santorum/Mike Huckabee wing.
In a two-party system, is it possible that one party can become completely noncompetitive? Almost. 2010 hid the Republicans from their medicine for a long time. They gained 56 House seats, the biggest swing since 1948- but it was just gaining back the seats they lost in 2006 and 2008. That Tea Party wave was only built on the 80 million votes turned out in 2010, as compared to the 130 million votes cast in 2008 or 140 million in 2012. But it did give the Republicans a decade of gerrymandered seats in Congress and the statehouses. That is how nationally the Democrats can get more Congressional votes in Presidential years but not come close to controlling the House of Representatives. It is how in 2012 Pennsylvania, Democrats can carry over 10% more Congressional votes than Republicans, yet send only 5 of the state’s 18 members to Congress. From that toehold, the Republicans can and will continue to play an extremely defensive and oppositionist role, but angry pessimism never triumphs. The political entertainment complex of talk radio and cable news makes themselves rich selling a narrative of betrayal and disappointment to a hard-core 10%.
But 2020 is coming, and it will matter a great deal. Bill Clinton spent the late 1980s and early 1990s putting together the Democratic Leadership Council. They moved the liberals to the center by facing reality head on. As James Carville said, “no one was buying our crap anymore.” Hard core Republicans in Wyoming can’t see it, but America isn’t buying Republicans crap any more.
In a weird way, it is 1992 again. The Republicans have sent Donald Trump in to pinch hit for James Buchanan, and the Bernie Boom is all about the Democrats questioning whether they were right to move to the middle. Maybe I am getting too far ahead of myself, but I don’t think the odds are 72-28 (Predictwise) or whatever for a Democratic win this Fall, I think the odds are about 100% for a Republican loss. Will someone Marco Rubio? Nicki Haley?- spend the next few years rebuilding a reasonable, responsible, respectful right?