Republicans Losing the Center?
Can a candidate appealing enough to the base to win the Republican nomination beat Obama?
Charlie Cook reports that Republican leaders are concerned that, despite numerous institutional advantages, appealing to a strident base may cost them the vital center.
It’s clear that the Republican congressional leadership believes that a shutdown is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. These are intelligent and reasonable people who have studied the mistakes Republicans made after they took control of Congress in 1994. They are determined not to replicate those mistakes.
While the GOP has worked hard to bring their freshmen and more ideological members around to the realities of politics, these freshmen and other rank-and-file members are getting pressure from back home not to compromise with Democrats.
These constituents don’t want any more short-term deals, and their pressure is offsetting the efforts by the party’s leadership to do things step by step so as to not jeopardize the party’s chances for gains in the Senate.
Part of what is happening is that there is a giant gap between the attitudes of Republican base voters and those who are swing voters.
The GOP base is reflecting the views and values of tea party voters who stormed the town meetings of Democratic members in 2009 and 2010.
These individuals believe the budget can be balanced with cuts in discretionary domestic spending and some believe that cuts in entitlements should be done immediately while the irons of the 2010 midterm elections are still hot.
But for independent voters, the 2010 elections were not about slashing government spending; rather, they were a reaction to what they saw as an over-reach by President Obama and the Democratic Congress.
These between-the-40-yard-line-voters didn’t like the economic stimulus package, climate change legislation or health care reform. They voted against Democrats and what Democrats were trying to do, but they did not embrace the budgetary slash-and-burn politics that is the embodiment of the tea party movement.
The disparity between the views of the GOP base and independent voters couldn’t be stronger.
Part of this is the difference between campaigning and governing. It’s much easier to run against Washington and all its waste and quite another to actually do anything about it. Not just because the nature of the system requires constant compromise but because the things people want–lots of services, a massive military machine, generous tax subsidies, low taxes, and low spending–are incompatible.
Additionally, though, the Republican Party has been taken over by the base in much the way that the Democratic Party was in the late 1960s.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan completed the work started by Richard Nixon and put together a governing coalition of traditional Republicans, Evangelical Christians, blue collar Catholics, and moderate hawks. The combination of an appeal to traditional values and staunch anti-Communism tied these people together event though they had profound cultural differences. But the traditional Republicans continued to run the party, simply paying lip service to the values issues. Over time, though, the Evangelicals took over the grass roots of the party, doing what traditional Republicans had generally refused to do: field strong candidates for school boards, county commissions, and other local leadership positions. These in turn became the farm team for higher offices, including the House of Representatives.
Eventually, that meant that elected Republicans had to do more than talk about family values but to actually try to enact that into legislation. That’s much less popular than talking about it. Then again, it doesn’t much matter at the level of the House. Gerrymandering has made most seats sufficiently safe that ideologues on both sides safely fill them.
The Tea Party movement has exacerbated the trend. On the one hand, it means that the Republicans have a grass roots movement than can help get out the vote in a way that only Democrats had previously. On the other, it means a second (albeit overlapping) constituency that’s still rabidly interested in politics once the election is over.
I wonder if the GOP isn’t in danger of becoming what the Democrats were in the 1970s and much of the 1980s: a party able to win local races–including carrying a majority in the House of Representatives–but able to cobble together the national constituency necessary to win the presidency only under extraordinary circumstances.
It seems ridiculously premature. After all, Republican George W. Bush won back-to-back terms. But Democrats had dominated the presidency from 1932 through 1964, with only the two terms by national hero Dwight Eisenhower breaking the streak before their implosion. They nominated ridiculously ideological candidates, who were crushed at the polls, in 1968 and 1972. They won in 1976 only by nominating a moderate Southern Evangelical and running in the wake of Watergate. Republicans then won three more landslides in 1980, 1984, and 1988 before the Democrats reinvented themselves in the guise of Bill Clinton.
My guess is that none of the more radical candidates–Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum–will win the nomination. But we’re at the point where even the more normal candidates are saying bizarre things to curry favor with the radical fringes of the base–including embracing the Birther morons.
Having voted Republican in every presidential race since I was first eligible (1984), there’s a non-zero chance that I’ll find myself unable to support the nominee this year. And that’s despite very intense disagreements with President Obama on core policy issues. If they lose me, they’ll find themselves on the other side of a Mondale or Dukakis level landslide. And likely conclude that their problem was being insufficiently true to their core principles.