The presidential election of 2008 is over. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States, and its first black chief executive, and nothing in America will ever be the same.
Including the Republican Party.
The debris of the train wreck that was the campaign of Sen. John McCain has barely stopped falling to earth, and the GOP is already huddling in postmortem mode, wargaming scenarios for 2010 — and engaging in the obligatory post-loss soul searching. Where did they go wrong?
The inevitable diversities of opinion about how the Republican brand, and Republican electoral prospects, went so far south point to a central problem with the Republicans. It’s a question of identity. There is soul searching going on within the GOP. The bigger problem for the party is apparently having more than one soul to search.
◊ ◊ ◊
There’s the literate, intellectual soul of the Republican Party, the approach to fiscal and cultural conservatism as espoused by William F. Buckley, widely hailed as an architect of the modern conservative movement and a man who once lamented having spent his “entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.”
There’s the NASCAR-and-barbecue soul of the Republican Party, symbolized by the millions who take their emotional cues on politics from the pit bulls of talk radio like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
And there’s the moderate aspect of the party, reflected by loyal pragmatists and centrists like Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, just defeated in his bid for re-election.
Steve Schmidt, campaign director for the McCain campaign, told uberlogger Ana Marie Cox last week in the Daily Beast:
“The Republican Party wants to, needs to, be able to represent, you know, not only conservatives, but centrists as well. And the party that controls the center is the party that controls the American electorate.” Earth to Schmidt: Ya think? What took you so long?
Schmidt said that, but he doesn’t believe it. Or more accurately, he might believe it now but he clearly didn’t believe that statement in the heat of the campaign. Schmidt, along with campaign strategist Rick Davis and McCain mouthpiece-in-chief Tucker Bounds, never played to the center of the American electorate. With more and more use of the politics of division, including coarse appeals to ethnic and racial animosities, John McCain & Co. ultimately did their best to appeal to the conservative base, and there’s nothing centrist about the conservative base.
The McCain campaign expended enormous personal and political energies working overtime to excite its core constituency, but the base was going to turn out for McCain anyway (grudgingly if necessary). Why? Because the Republican base skews older, whiter and more affluent, and older, whiter and more affluent Americans who are Republicans show up and vote. Republicans don’t do staying home on Election Day very well. Staying at home on Election Day is for Democrats. Or so they thought.
◊ ◊ ◊
Observers, some in the GOP itself, have called for the party to take a chill pill, to study the X-rays before writing a prescription.
Ross Douthat of Slate wrote the day after the election: “A pair of defeats as resounding as '06 and '08 have a thousand fathers, no matter how much every right-winger would like to assign paternity to someone else. Which means that the best thing, by far, for the American right would be for every sect within the conservative temple to spend some time in self-examination before it turns to flinging blame.”
And Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, reacting to talk that names are already being bandied about for the 2012 race, was plainer still. “I’m going to tell you something,” he told Jonathan Martin of The Poilitico. “One of the worst things that can happen to the Republican Party in our effort to rebuild is for a bunch of people to start running for president. Anybody harboring that ambition needs to squelch it until after 2010. … Anybody out there running for president is undercutting what’s important. You do this against your own interest.”
Of all the inward-looking debate in this, the GOP’s sackcloth-and-ashes period, there’s been talk about the need for conservatives to hew to their “core principles,” about conservatives vowing never to sacrifice those principles, under pain of becoming a party without a philosophy.
What are those “core principles”? Maybe soon-to-be-former Congressman Shays touched on them when he told NBC News tonight that, in order to be competitive, “you’ve got to reach out to African Americans, you’ve got to reach out to Latinos and you’ve got to be an inclusive party, and we aren’t right now, but we will be or we will be extinct.”
Maybe former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele, an African American Republican, will tap into that spirit when he announces, as he’s expected to do soon, his intent to seek the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee.
◊ ◊ ◊
However long this well-deserved time in the wilderness lasts, the Party of Lincoln and its supporters will ultimately need to look closely at one man, one of their own, and then answer two questions.
The man is Paul Weyrich, the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority, a darling of the arch conservative movement and to this day a Washington Times columnist and an adviser on conservative political strategies. Weyrich said the following in Dallas, in the fall of 1980:
“Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
The questions to be answered by the Republican Party are simple: Does this man’s stand reflect your core principles, your values as Republicans and as Americans? Is this in any way what you believe?
◊ ◊ ◊
Whatever soul searching the GOP engages in between now and 2012 stands for nothing without answering those questions first. Everything — every possibility of a conservative populist reinvention in the years to come, maybe even the very future of the Republican Party — depends on the answer to that question by everyone from the party’s leaders to its rank and file.
Plurality is foundational to American government. The majority rules. Without taking the opportunity to expand the potential for being in the majority by expanding the base of the party itself, the GOP sabotages its own future.
The majority rules. Last time we checked, Barack Obama did win this election with a majority of the voting American people. He defeated John McCain by seven percentage points, with more than 130 million votes cast.
Note to RNC leadership: If you want to win with the base, widen the base.
Note to Paul Weyrich: You can’t hold the center of the American electorate if you don’t know what the center of the American electorate is. Guess what? That’s what the votes will tell you. The more of them, the better.
Image credits: Train wreck, Shays, Buckley, Electoral map: Public domain. Steve Schmidt: Mark Silva/The Swamp (Chicago Tribune).