Posted: January 2, 2008
o far, the 2008 presidential campaign has been almost wholly encouraging to Democrats and disturbing to Republicans. To begin with, Americans have a fondness for alternation of power; parties seeking a third consecutive term have not fared well. In the past half-century, the incumbent party lost four of the five times it sought a third consecutive presidential term (1988 was the exception).
Throughout the past year, George W. Bush's approval ratings were stuck around 35%. Democrats led Republicans in the so-called "generic ballot," pitting an unnamed Democrat against an unnamed Republican, by 20 points or more. Democrats led Republicans on almost every major issue, and by substantial margins in fundraising. For most of the year, Democratic candidates led Republican candidates in head-to-head polls. By large margins, voters told pollsters that they thought the country was on the wrong track. Voter identification, which had been evenly split between the parties in 2004, was tilting in the Democrats' favor.
On the other hand, after ten months in power, the new Democratic Congress's approval ratings are lower than the president's. The Republican congressional leadership is also more than a match for their partisan counterparts, especially in the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has run circles around Majority Leader Harry Reid. As the situation on the ground in Iraq improved, public sentiment on the war shifted enough for Republicans to keep Democrats from cutting off funds. And Democratic candidates lead head-to-head polls by considerably smaller margins than Democrats lead in the generic poll. The Republican candidates are significantly outperforming their party label. To the extent that the party "brand" is powerfully influenced by the president, the gap between the generic poll and the actual candidates implies that Republicans will have a better chance once the nominees are chosen and the nation gets down to the serious business of deciding between them. George W. Bush is not going to be on the ballot.
But elections are about much more than an accumulation of polling data and short term trends. The big picture revolves around a different sort of question: taking a longer view, what is the state of the parties?
What Do Republicans Stand For?
As one might expect, after battling the president for seven years on domestic policy and losing congressional control in 2006, Republicans are in some disarray. This will not change just because they settle quickly on a nominee in early 2008, if indeed they do. The speed with which the presidential race proceeded after the midterm elections has hampered the Republicans' ability to engage in some much needed soul-searching. Before they had an opportunity to think seriously about the party's philosophy or its policy agenda, Republicans were thrust into the ritual of picking sides and obsessing about who polls best against Hillary Clinton. If it is possible for serious thinking to emerge during the give-and-take of the primaries themselves, a longer primary season is what Republicans should hope for, not a shorter one.
So far, the GOP has largely succumbed to the temptation of blaming either Bush and Iraq, or Bush and spending, or Congress and spending, or Congress and corruption for the party's 2006 debacle. All of those culprits share the blame, to be sure; but Republicans also grew too arrogant, too cynical, and too convinced that mechanics matter more than ideas. George Bush, Karl Rove, and former House majority leader Tom DeLay built a better political machine than Republicans had enjoyed in decades, but the president sabotaged the Republican reputation for limited government and ignored the task of explaining and advancing a public argument. As a result, Americans have lost a clear sense of what the Republican Party stands for, and the GOP may have lost a generation of voters. Until the party makes a decisive break with this approach, it will have difficulty overcoming its 2006 hangover.
There are also signs that the ground may be shifting under the Republican coalition, which has held for three decades. Big business is said to be taking a fresh look at the Democrats in search of rent-seeking policies on health care and in other areas. High-income earners are increasingly favorable to Democrats as well, perhaps on the basis of cultural liberalism (or to be more precise, the loss of Republican concern for limited government, which used to balance the GOP's social conservatism). At the same time, the party of secularism is making a concerted effort to woo evangelical voters, although it is too early to tell how much success it will have. More generally, many analysts posit that the long alliance between economic conservatives and social conservatives may be over. If Democrats can exploit these openings, they will have the opportunity for an electoral blowout and a long-term rearrangement of the party coalitions, putting them on top for the foreseeable future. Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru recently contended in the pages of the National Review that Republicans are facing the prospect of a "cataclysm," and they might be right.
Still, much of the above is (thus far) idle speculation. What we know is that in 2006 (as opposed to 2004) Republicans suffered stiff losses among independents, self-identified conservatives, and men. This is good news for Republicans in 2008 because these losses are less easily explained by a shift to liberalism in the electorate than by short-term frustrations over policy and performance on Iraq, spending, and immigration—exacerbated by the GOP's sense of entitlement and failure to explain to sympathetic but independent voters why Republicans should have kept their majority. The voters who deserted the party were not yearning for a return to the Great Society. A reasonably competent Republican presidential candidate, freed from association with an unpopular president, should be able to craft a message that will retrieve many of the voters lost in 2006. (Note to Democrats: if the GOP needs to recapture relatively conservative male independents, a highly partisan liberal feminist insider from New York may not be your best pick for 2008.)
Key Lessons for the GOP
Although Republicans have not engaged in an open, prolonged discussion about the future of their party, the campaign rhetoric so far suggests that the GOP has learned some key lessons.
First, "compassionate conservatism," elements of which alienated many conservative independents while attracting no liberals, seems likely to recede into memory like Dwight Eisenhower's "Modern Republicanism." Only two candidates in the Republican field—Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback—could plausibly be considered disciples of compassionate conservatism, although even they called for greater vigilance against federal spending. Brownback departed the race in October, leaving Huckabee the sole compassionate conservative in the field. Every Republican candidate has effectively embraced President Bush's tax cuts but repudiated his spending practices and penchant for centralization. Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson have returned federalism to a prominent place in their campaign rhetoric. Mitt Romney delivered a speech in September chastising Republicans for not acting like Republicans, a thinly veiled swipe at big-government conservatism. Although differences remain among them, all of the GOP contenders have embraced a tougher stand on immigration than the president has advocated. (Another element of compassionate conservatism, Bush's concern for outreach to minority groups, has also been jettisoned by most of the field, unwisely.) Republicans may be awakening to the fact that there is a constituency for a grown-up party after all.
Second, social conservatism continues to be an important part of the Republican formula. Of the four and a half major contenders, only Giuliani has a socially liberal record in office, and he has spent a large part of his campaign seeking ways to overcome it. Romney engaged in socially liberal campaign rhetoric in 1994, but has sought to atone for that with a more conservative record in office—and talking an even more conservative game during his presidential run. The other two and a half major candidates (McCain, Thompson, and Huckabee) have solid records in office supporting socially conservative positions. The pro-choice Giuliani surprised many analysts with his ability to stay atop the Republican polls for most of 2007, but observers have typically failed to note the critical difference between him and previous pro-choice Republican contenders. Senator Arlen Specter, for example, whose campaign went nowhere in 2000, built his candidacy around his position on abortion and made no secret of his contempt for the Religious Right. Giuliani has cultivated social conservatives, sought to allay their concerns, and has tried to make abortion utterly peripheral to his campaign. Specter did not angle for—let alone receive—Pat Robertson's endorsement.
Ultimately, Republicans are aided by three facts. On national security, which will continue to be a crucial issue in 2008, they are much more unified than the Democrats. Their minority status in Congress gives them a freedom of action they did not possess before November 2006. And the presidential nominee—no matter who he is—will be unconnected to the administration and under no compulsion to speak less than candidly about its shortcomings. The Republicans need a nominee like France's Nicolas Sarkozy who ran as a change candidate despite belonging to the incumbent's party. Fortunately for them, their field of contenders makes such a run highly plausible, as does the president's disappointing record on domestic policy. Republicans can run for change and for a more traditional conservatism at the same time.
The Democrats' Leftward Drift
Democrats, sitting atop a big win in 2006 and a large collection of short-term advantages, nevertheless have their own worries. While the actual influence of the left-wing netroots might be exaggerated (witness Ned Lamont's failed bid to replace Joe Lieberman in the Senate), the netroots are increasingly coming to be seen as the Democratic Party's public face, and it is not a pretty one. Although the netroots could in theory spearhead a discussion among Democrats about the future of their party, they are almost wholly preoccupied with day-to-day minutiae and invective. As a result, little or no intellectual groundwork has been laid for either a big win by Democrats in 2008 or, perhaps more importantly, for what Democrats would do with a big win if they get it. Democrats are intellectually unprepared for the opportunity that may be handed them, making it unlikely that 2008 will be another 1932 or 1964 in policy terms even if they win a victory of comparable magnitude. Markos Moulitsas is not the next Herbert Croly, John Kenneth Galbraith, or Michael Harrington.
Instead, Democrats have simply drifted leftward willy-nilly and seem content to win in 2008 by running on dissatisfaction with Republicans. It worked in 2006, but that sort of victory is often unfruitful, as Democrats in Congress have found. Hillary Clinton has worked hard to burnish her credentials as a centrist, but it is more a commentary on the field than on her that she is the least left-wing of her party's major contenders. Democrats have failed to use their new majority to shore up their longstanding weaknesses on cultural and national security matters. To the contrary, the year-long debate over Iraq may have re-branded Democrats as the McGovernite party of defeat. They are in a vulnerable position, camped on exposed ground well to the left of where they were eight or twelve years ago, but they have not staked their ground with deliberate conviction. They have rather been herded there by a combination of the netroots' aggressiveness and their own dilettantism and ingrained prejudices.
More generally, it cannot be considered a sign of the Democratic Party's vitality that Senator Clinton is the clear frontrunner. By virtually any objective standard the Democratic Party was weaker in 2000 than in 1992, and by many believable accounts a large number of Democratic officeholders were relieved in January 2001 to be done with the continuous embarrassments of the Clinton White House. Yet after two terms of Bush-era frustration, Democrats have seemingly forgotten how the Clintons deprived them of their majorities and their dignity, and are ready to go through it all over again. In any case, this is not a party with a deep bench.
In 2002, John Judis and Ruy Teixiera argued in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority that Democrats would benefit from a demographic surge of affluent, culturally liberal groups that would carry them to a majority by 2010. Michael Barone and others countered that Republicans were doing extremely well in the fastest-growing counties in America. We may actually be entering a moment in which the electorate in general is unsettled and in which almost anything can happen, not least because the parties themselves are unsettled.
In the end, the election will turn on a combination of short-term and long-term factors and critical events. Will the economy be strong or weak, and which candidate will be better positioned to take advantage of it? Will improvements in Iraq continue? Will war with Iran be averted, and if not, what will be the consequences? Will there be important Supreme Court decisions that affect the climate of the election? Will the Democratic Congress succeed in using its power to strengthen its party's nominee, or will its excesses become weapons in the Republican arsenal? Will there be one or more "third" parties, such as a pro-life party, an anti-immigration party, or a ticket for affluent liberal independents? Not least, who will be the standard-bearers for each party?
Republicans may be, as pundits claim, on the verge of a crushing defeat that will hand Democrats both the presidency and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Yet there are two other plausible scenarios: 2008 as 1968, or as 1948. In each, the GOP today would play the electoral role of the Democrats then. In 1968, Democrats, who were saddled with an unpopular president, an unpopular war, and a collapsing New Deal coalition, nevertheless suffered only moderate losses in congressional elections and came very close to retaining the presidency. In 1948, faced with widespread "expert" belief in the inevitability of a GOP win, Democrats came roaring back with a hard-hitting campaign that reaffirmed their basic principles, exploited Republican divisions and complacency, and mobilized their own latent majority. Neither analogy is perfect. Iraq is not Vietnam in 1968 (a point in the Republicans' favor), and their nominee will not be an incumbent as in 1948 (another point in their favor). If she is nominated, Hillary Clinton may prove to be an uncanny combination of Thomas Dewey and Richard Nixon—evasive, unscrupulous, and constantly in the process of reinvention. Either scenario promises a close election.
Much in 2008 will depend on whether Republicans succeed in distancing themselves from President Bush in a way that is principled rather than opportunistic, and whether they succeed in focusing Americans on the harsh realities of national security seven years after 9/11. Much, both before and after Election Day, will depend on Republicans constructing a broader philosophical framework for thinking about the issues at hand. They cannot avoid talking about health care or the environment, but they can talk about those things in a way that combines the practical and the principled. If Republicans can make their case convincingly, they might just win the election against the odds. And if they don't win the election, they can lay a stronger foundation for making a comeback in the battles that will ensue.
As Democrats proved in 2006, the wheel can always turn again. Americans, after all, have a fondness for alternation in power.