Rebuilding the Republican Brand
It’s not exactly news that the Republican Party is in the doldrums at the moment. It lost control of both Houses of Congress in the 2006 elections, its president is at historic lows in the polls, it has lost a string of special elections and its incumbent Congressmen are retiring in droves, and the odds are better than even that they’ll lose the White House in the Fall.
As usually happens when one of the two major parties is in a down cycle, the pundits and activists alike come out of the woodworks proposing a plan to save the party — invariably by making it more suitable to their own particular preferences. The latest entrants in this fray are a superb long piece in the New Yorker by George Packer, “The Fall of Conservatism — Have the Republicans run out of ideas?” (via memeorandum) and a call by moderate California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for a “rebranding” of the GOP (via Glenn Reynolds).
Packer provides a look at the rise and fall of the modern Republican Party, which begins with Goldwater’s massive defeat in 1964 and a quick turnaround leading to Richard Nixon’s stunning blowout victory four years later.
[The Nixon] Administration adopted an undercover strategy for building a Republican majority, working to create the impression that there were two Americas: the quiet, ordinary, patriotic, religious, law-abiding Many, and the noisy, élitist, amoral, disorderly, condescending Few.
A more charitable characterization would be that the overwhelming majority of Americans saw their culture under assault from an urban elite and a sympathetic Supreme Court. But the battle lines are about right no matter how one looks at it.
Political tactics have a way of outliving their ability to respond to the felt needs and aspirations of the electorate: Democrats continued to accuse Republicans of being like Herbert Hoover well into the nineteen-seventies; Republicans will no doubt accuse Democrats of being out of touch with real Americans long after George W. Bush retires to Crawford, Texas. But the 2006 and 2008 elections are the hinge on which America is entering a new political era.
This will be true whether or not John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, wins in November. He and his likely Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, “both embody a post-polarized, or anti-polarized, style of politics,” the Times columnist David Brooks told me. “McCain, crucially, missed the sixties, and in some ways he’s a pre-sixties figure. He and Obama don’t resonate with the sixties at all.” The fact that the least conservative, least divisive Republican in the 2008 race is the last one standing—despite being despised by significant voices on the right—shows how little life is left in the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought into power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, Newt Gingrich radicalized, Tom DeLay criminalized, and Bush allowed to break into pieces.
After Reagan and the end of the Cold War, conservatism lost the ties that had bound together its disparate factions—libertarians, evangelicals, neoconservatives, Wall Street, working-class traditionalists.
This isn’t a new observation — after all, the Soviet Union fell seventeen years ago now! — but it has in fact been difficult to keep that coalition together without a common enemy. Then again, the GOP has won two of the four presidential elections wrested control of the Congress for several years during that span. So, clearly, they must have had something to offer besides warmed over 1960’s bromides.
Rcently, I spoke with a number of conservatives about their movement. The younger ones—say, those under fifty—uniformly subscribe to the reformist version. They are in a state of glowing revulsion at the condition of their political party. Most of them predicted that Republicans will lose the Presidency this year and suffer a rout in Congress. They seemed to feel that these losses would be deserved, and suggested that, if the party wins, it will be—in the words of Rich Lowry, the thirty-nine-year-old editor of National Review—”by default.”
Pat Buchanan was less polite, paraphrasing the social critic Eric Hoffer: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
I tend to agree with both Lowry and Buchanan. The party became the enemy it preached against for so many years, embracing big government solutions, a moralistic foreign policy, and a huge appetite for pork. The K Street Project, the cover-up of the Mark Foley scandal, the Duke Cunningham mess and similar events demonstrated that holding on to and capitalizing on power was more important to some of the party’s leadership than the principles they had campaigned on.
At the same time, though, young activists are always disappointed in their leaders. Even when there’s no corruption involved, politicians naturally engage in compromise, logrolling, and the other distasteful but necessary facets of governing.
Packer also engages in some unfair jibes, such as:
By the end of the century, a movement inspired by sophisticated works such as Russell Kirk’s 1953 “The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot” churned out degenerate descendants with titles like “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must).”
Rather obviously, these aren’t aimed at the same audiences. The former was for the elites, the latter for the masses. Surely, there was plenty of nonsense in the 1950s (say, the various tracts of the John Birch Society) and plenty of quality nowadays (including some books cited elsewhere in Packer’s piece). A mass political movement will always have both highbrow intellectualism and populist red meat.
Schwarzenegger, campaigning last week with John McCain, had some advice: The party should be, well, more like Arnold.
“The Republican idea is a great idea, but we can’t go and get stuck with just the right wing,” Schwarzenegger said. “Let’s let the party come all the way to the center. Let those people be heard as much as the right. Let it be the big tent we’ve talked about. Let’s invade and let’s cross over that (political) center,” he said. “The issues that they’re talking about? Let them be our issues, and let the party be known for that.”
He observed that his own political opponents, including former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, tried to define him in much the way McCain is being defined by Democrats – as joined at the hip with Bush. “It didn’t work,” he laughed. But “how does (McCain) beat the Democrats? By offering a better future. He needs to offer hope, he needs to go in and show he can solve the problem in Iraq and have better relations with other countries again … and bring the economy back.”
But Schwarzenegger didn’t need rebranding; his “brand” is a larger-than-life persona he created over the years. McCain can’t very well run as an action hero. Packer ends his piece, though, by noting that McCain might just well manage to win as, well, John McCain.
McCain appeared to a warm reception. I had seen him in New Hampshire, where he gave off-the-cuff remarks with vigor; when he is stuck with a script, however, he is a terrible campaigner. Looking pallid, he sounded flat, and stumbled over his lines—and yet they were effective lines, ones that Obama would do well to study. “I can’t claim we come from the same background,” McCain began. “I’m not the son of a coal miner. I wasn’t raised by a family that made its living from the land or toiled in a mill or worked in the local schools or health clinic. I was raised in the United States Navy, and, after my own naval career, I became a politician. My work isn’t as hard as yours—it isn’t nearly as hard as yours. I had an easier start.” He paused and went on, “But you are my compatriots, my fellow-Americans, and that kinship means more to me than almost any other association.”
That’s the right message and a powerful one. But, really, it’s not as different from Nixon’s as Packer’s revisionism would have us believe. McCain is trying to forge a common definition of what it means to be “American” and identifying himself as the candidate most able to protect those values. He’s got an uphill fight, going against a younger man with a lot less baggage, but he’s got a puncher’s chance.
What’ll be interesting, whether McCain wins or loses in the Fall, is what lessons the GOP takes from his campaign. If he loses, one suspects we’ll see calls for a return to a harder line conservatism, which could well relegate the Republicans to regional status for a while. If he wins, I suspect we’ll still see calls for a harder line conservatism, since McCain will have run under the conservative banner, but there will also be more push for a bigger tent.