November 14, 2005
For the next few weeks and months, there will be a steady stream of hand-wringing by Republicans, as they struggle to regain their lost "mojo" (as my friend Dave puts it). Nebraska Senators Chuck Hagel and John McCain are often regarded as "moderates" in the Republican Party, but in some instances they seem to be the most faithful to conservative (i.e., small government) ideology. I heard Sen. Hagel being interviewed on C-SPAN yesterday, and he pointed out that he and McCain were the only Republicans to vote against the procedural motion by which President Bush's dubious Medicare prescription drug benefit bill went forward.
As for the socio-economic dynamics behind the GOP identity crisis, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam analyze the origins of the recent crises suffered by the the Republicans in the current Weekly Standard, and suggest that they have become "The Party of Sam's Club." (via Daniel Drezner)
One difficulty, as a host of delighted Democrats have pointed out, is that a party ideologically committed to a small government may be ill-equipped to run a large one.
But a larger problem is that even the more idealistic aspects of the GOP program--Bush's vision of an "ownership society," the pursuit of a politically risky Social Security privatization plan--have been ill-suited to the present political climate, and to the mood of the American people. It's not just that the American people have shown little appetite of late for dramatically shrinking the scope of the federal government, or taking more economic responsibility into their own hands--it's that there's shrinking support for such goals among reliable Republican voters.
This is the Republican party of today--an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on supermajorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement. To borrow a phrase from Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Republicans are now "the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club."
Now there's a frightening thought. Are American values of self-reliance really so weak among the working classes these days? Their line of analysis certainly concords with my worries about the dangerous populist turn taken by some Republican candidates, such as defeated gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore. The former problem -- an amateurish disdain for public administration -- was exposed in the harsh glare of 24/7 news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and highlights the fundamental contradiction of the Bush-Rove strategy of employing Big Government to reform society according to conservative precepts. Ironically, the very pursuit of such an ambitious "hegemonic project" exposes the government leaders to corruption, as they acquire a taste for the forbidden fruit of Absolute Power. Resisting such a temptation would be difficult even for true saints, and is likely to be overwhelming for average Republicans.
Lest I sound too much like an incessant Rove-basher, however, let me acknowledge that he sounded very impressive in articulating conservative principles and objects while speaking to the Federalist Society last week. (cablecast on C-SPAN)
UPDATE: I had meant to draw attention to the contrast between RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman and DNC Chairman Howard Dean on Meet the Press (see transcript) yesterday. As for the question about what implications last week's elections have for 2006 and 2008, each man's response was predictable and obvious. On the question of justification and conduct of the Iraq war, Mehlman readily accepted forthright criticism, but rejected the way many critics of Bush impugn his veracity and motives. My only complaint is that Mehlman's responses were a bit too well rehearsed. For his part, Dean repeated the same worn-out cliches about alleged "lies," struggling mightily to control his urge to smirk, and pointedly avoided saying what the Democrats would do differently. If one had to choose parties solely on the basis of their respective national leaders, it would be a no-brainer.