November 7, 2008
Thursday's New York Times presented an intriguing county-by-county map of the 2008 election, dissecting the "blue shift" which underlay Obama's historic victory. At first glance, it seems rather misleading, because several states that McCain won are clearly shaded in blue. The reason is that it shows not the percentage of votes received by each party's candidate, but rather the net shift since the 2004 presidential election. There is a striking geographic concentration of the areas in which McCain did better than Bush did four years ago, stretching from the coal country of southern West Virginia through Tennessee, northern Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and into Texas and Louisiana. The Times attributes this to the demographic makeup of those areas, which are predominantly white and rural in character.
So what does this demographic shift portend for the Grand Old Party? Probably a further migration away from the party's traditional emphasis on big business and global trade (NAFTA, WTO) exemplified by leaders such as Mitt Romney, and toward the more insular, populist attitude exemplified by leaders such as Pat Buchanan. The challenge for Republican Party leaders will be to articulate a national policy agenda that puts the marginalized regions into the mainstream of American politics, much as Franklin Roosevelt did for Appalachia and the Democratic Party during the 1930s. That will take some doing!
On the northern edge of that "red-shifting" region is the "Show Me" state of Missouri, which remains "too close to call." With a lead of nearly 6,000 votes, however, McCain has it nearly wrapped up. As noted by the Kansas City Star, "The election marked the first time since 1821 that a Democrat was elected president without winning Missouri. ... Overall, it was also the first time since 1956, and only the second time since 1900, that the state backed a presidential loser." This calls into question Missouri's time-honored status as a "bellwether" state. (Not "bellweather," as some people write.)
That's the title of today's News Leader editorial, referring to the reason why some local Republicans think the GOP lost so badly on Tuesday. I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. How can a party that has been completely taken over by the right wing possibly be not conservative enough? The editorial was quite right to "connect the dots" between the failures of the Republican Party at the national level with the bitter acrimony we Republicans in Staunton and Augusta County have endured for the past couple years. (Believe me, we have been doing everything in our might to keep the tensions out of public view so as not to undermine the campaign efforts of Republican candidates. It's a relief to have the pressure off, finally.)
Contrary to what many people think, the infighting among local Republicans was not just a personality squabble that got out of hand, it was a very serious dispute on what course the party should take. The editorial writers seemed to think that the party is divided between social conservatives and those who prioritize tax cuts, but that is not quite right. The real divide is between those who insist on a rigid, narrow pre-defined policy agenda, demanding unconditional loyalty from members, versus those who (like me) believe in rationally deliberating the issues and setting priorities based on electoral realities. In other words, the fundamental dispute is more about process than policy substance. Indeed, some of the folks on our side identify with the right wing of the GOP, but simply refuse to put up with cronyism, corruption, and dictatorial leadership.
All it would take for the party to get back on track would be a willingness to engage in honest, open dialogue, in an atmosphere free of intimidation and defamation. Most Virginians, and indeed most Americans, are naturally inclined toward the conservative side, and would be eager to join a party that did not shun newcomers. Under the current leadership of the Republican Party of Virginia, deluded by meaningless slogans like grassroots, unfortunately, such a dialogue is extremely unlikely. For some people, reality is a difficult concept to grasp.
One of the most intelligent and yet heartfelt perspectives on the election appeared in Thursday's Washington Post, in which Charles Krauthammer wrote an "autopsy" on the McCain campaign. As he reminds us, McCain was still ahead in the polls until mid-September, when the Lehman Brothers firm collapsed and the economy plunged off a cliff. This created an almost insurmountable climate of voter hostility toward the Republicans, and most voters were too angry to try to understand why the Democrats deserved most of the blame for the mortgage debacle. This spelled doom. At the same time, voters who did pay closer attention had to laugh at McCain's warnings that a President Obama would mean socialism, as President Bush proceeded to socialize the banking sector. Krauthammer had said from the start that the choice of Sarah Palin as running mate was a terrible mistake, squandering McCain's inherent advantage of maturity, experience, and responsibility. Trying to seize the "change" slogan from Obama was, as he says, a "fool's errand" for the candidate of the incumbent party.
On the same page in today's Post, House Minority Leader John Boehner conceded that the Republicans had failed and said he would try to cooperate with Obama's administration "when it is in the best interest of our nation." It was a graceful and sincere gesture of bipartisanship, but at the same time he served notice that his party wouldn't be fooled by sweet talk:
This election was neither a referendum in favor of the left's approach to key issues nor a mandate for big government. Obama campaigned by masking liberal policies with moderate rhetoric to make his agenda more palatable to voters.
It didn't take long for the finger-pointing among Republicans to begin. Some people in John McCain's camp talked to Newsweek reporters, pinning the blame on Sarah Palin for the electoral loss, even suggesting that she was clueless about basic facts of world politics. Whether such a depiction was accurate or not, it is quite unseemly for high-level campaign operatives to snipe at their candidate's running mate so soon after the election is over. Some bloggers on the right have used words like "Character Assassination" to denounce the McCain advisors for putting down Sarah Palin, but that is exactly the kind of dirty politics the right wing has been practicing during the Bush-Rove Era, so those charges ring hollow.
When Tina Fey showed the "Palin 2012" T-shirt during the skit with John McCain on Saturday Night Live, I thought it was a hilarious parody, like something you would read in The Onion. To my shock and dismay, there seem to be a fair number of Republicans who are cheering just such a candidacy. Are they out of their minds?? She is no better equipped to lead this nation than Barack Obama is... Oh, I see. Maybe that's good enough. Nobody emerged to rally the right wing this campaign year, and those folks really hunger for a leader they can call their own.
Whenever a defeat as big as this one occurs, it is hard to keep things in perspective. We need to cool it for a while, until we have all had a chance to reflect on the disaster that just happened. Above all, we must avoid pointless hand-wringing.
Speaking of which, I heard Rush Limbaugh accuse the moderate Republicans of dragging the party "down into the sewer" this afternoon, so I turned him off for the rest of the day.