Ugly: The Future of the Republican Party
Republicans are going down.
Let me say that again ('cause it feels so good): Republicans are going down. Hard.
A tsunami this way cometh, and it's got GOP loaded in its GPS.
Apart from the fact that the Democrats are about to nominate a black candidate in a still racist white country, there could hardly be a more perfect storm of Republican-focused discontent imaginable in 2008. And Obama's color may actually turn out to be a neutral factor, or even a net gain. African Americans are going to come out in droves to vote for him, possibly even putting certain Jim Crow states, such as North Carolina, into play for the Democrats for the first time since the civil rights movement. Moreover, young people are going to turn out and vote in huge numbers this year, and it won't be John McCain who is the glimmer in their eyes. And then there are the angry people -- which is just about all of the rest of us -- who are going to be voting in big numbers as well. They may not necessarily be voting for Obama, but they will be gleefully voting against anything on the ballot stupid enough to have an R after its name (and there will be one helluva lot less of those, by the way, in 2010 than in 2008).
This is the year in which Republicans are going to come to join the rest of us in their levels of affection for George W. Bush. They are the only constituency whom he hasn't yet taken over a cliff, but that will change on November 4th. Bush won't be on the ballot. He will be the ballot. Every angry American (hey, only a record-breaking 82 percent of us think the country's on the wrong track) will be thinking about how much gas costs, about how their expenses are going up, their income is stuck in neutral and their job is headed for India. They'll be thinking about two wars turned into twin debacles, and the lies associated with them. They'll be thinking about the dead bodies, the stink of torture, the tortured reputation of their country, and the people who made all of that possible. They'll be thinking about the mountain of national debt their kids are gonna have to pay back, plus interest, so that the fantastically wealthy in this country could matriculate into becoming obscenely wealthy. They'll be thinking about environmental destruction. They'll be thinking about arrogance and incompetence and corruption. They're gonna want somebody to pay, and -- worst of all for the party of Rove and Cheney and Bush -- they're not really afraid anymore.
As if things weren't bad enough for the GOP we got a glimpse of their coming horror show on the Tuesday night of the last primary. Could there possibly have been a greater contrast between the prime-time performances of Barack Obama and John McCain? There was Obama, every inch the eloquent statesman, the perfect fit for the crises of his time. And there was McCain, more wooden than a cigar store Indian, less authentic than a sit-com laugh track, unable to even read a speech without sounding like a shrill robot with serious software glitches. Oh, Baby. That's what I'm talkin' about. Bring. It. On.
Forget what the polls are now saying about the closeness of the race. Obama is going to clean McCain's clock, both in the electoral and popular votes. The guy is finished, and I couldn't be happier that it is George W. Bush who is taking him down a second time, and destroying forever his life's aspiration. After what Bush and Rove did to him in 2000, McCain should have left the GOP, dragging his dignity along behind him. That he stayed, and that he then participated in the nightmare for democracy that was the Republican convention of 2004, going to bat for a punk like Bush and dissing Michael Moore over a movie McCain hadn't even bothered to watch, sealed his fate forever. Mr. Maverick laid down with the nastiest dogs this side of 1930s Berlin, and it is only right and proper that he will be buried choking in fleas.
Another of the wonderful ironies of the Great GOP Implosion of 2008 is that in so many ways, they were victims of their own success. These guys don't know anything about how to govern, and they couldn't be less interested. Remember that old expression about New Dealers who came to Washington to do good, and also wound up doing well? Well, these guys came to rape, and also wound up pillaging. Nobody in America outside of Greenwich, Connecticut or Orange County, California has any interest in having that kind of government. We've seen it in Zimbabwe, and it isn't pretty. Which is why it was always amazing that these gluttons could keep winning elections. But that's where they were so good. Nobody can do marketing miracles like the GOP. Historians will have so much to say about our time, decades and centuries from now, but surely they will be most stunned by the simple fact alone that a thing like George W. Bush could have twice been propelled into the White House, out of 300 million possible choices. That's the power of quality marketing, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Anyhow, November 4th is going to be a serious party in a whole lot of households across the entire planet, but November 5th is in many ways going to be even more amusing. For, along with getting clobbered in the race for the White House, the Republicans are going to get smashed all across the ballot, from the US Senate all the way down to local dogcatcher races. They are going to be shell-shocked zombies. The walking wounded. Poster-children for PTSD. And, they are neither going to know what to do about it, nor will they have any particularly attractive options from which to choose.
Many Republicans are going to quit the party in the weeks and months following. For those who remain, these will be really dark days. I see four possible futures for the GOP after November 4th, when 1932 comes round again in 2008.
Many of the looniest of the regressive right will insist that their problem was that they simply weren't conservative enough! The rest of us here in the reality-based world should cross every finger, toe and any other bodily appendage we can, in the hopes that these folks win the fratricidal war inside the party. Yeah, man, that's what America wants! Not less of the thirteenth century, but more! More war! More bankruptcy! More lies! More recession! More deficits! More economic predation! More environmental destruction! More trashing of the national reputation! More Constitution shredding! More democracy debasing! More corruption! More sexism, racism, xenophobia and homophobia! More polarization and rancor in our politics! More imperial presidency accountable to no one! More drowned cities! More incompetence! More Bushes! (Yo, Jeb -- what up, dude?) Of course! What could Republicans ever have been thinking? The problem with conservatives is that they didn't realize until too late that America is actually more conservative than Bush, Scalia, DeLay and the rest.
Ha-ha, right? But this is actually precisely the thinking of many of the party's true believers. America is angry at us because we didn't cut spending on popular programs like Medicare and thereby diluted the Republican "brand." I'm not kidding. This is actually the dominant line inside the party now, as they begin already to scramble ahead of the earthquake they know is coming. And why not? What else are they going to do? Are they going to say, "We're getting clobbered by furious voters because we were flat-out wrong on everything imaginable"? Not many of them are existentially brave enough to admit to that, and the rest of us should be thankful for that fact. For the longer that this is the prevailing wisdom inside the party, the better its chances for long-term irrelevance, or perhaps something even more deserving and delightful. If the GOP hard-liners move the party further to the right, one quite conceivable future is that it will go the way of the Federalists or the Whigs and disappear, spending eternity you-know-where, sipping some very, very hot tea with Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet and a host of other nice folks.
A second possibility, if the hardliners win the day, is that the party splits. No way are the Olympia Snowes or Arnold Schwarzeneggers of this world sticking around to test the theoretical question of how deeply despised one party can become. They know what comes next if they do. Can you say 'Lincoln Chaffee?' This would be a moment pregnant with the possibility of GOP 'moderates' calving off to form a center-right party, probably fiscally conservative and socially moderate -- the perfect match for a lot of self-centered Baby Boomers who want it all. No doubt certain DLC-type Democrats would be attracted to just such a party (Lieberman could run for president again!), perhaps even enough to join up. If it got some traction, we would enter a period in which America had three major parties from amongst which voters could choose. But the country's history, not to mention its winner-take-all, district (i.e., non-proportional) electoral system strongly suggests that such a condition would not long last. My guess, if we're not getting too far out in front of ourselves here, is that, of the two, it would be the right-wing, rump GOP that would ultimately perish under those conditions, though it is certainly no picnic launching a new major party in America. Last time that happened successfully was over 150 years ago.
The reason I suspect that the GOP might well tack to the right after its November spanking is because over there lies the party's fundamental raison d'ÃƒÂªtre, and that has been the case for a generation now, ever since the Reaganoids finally succeeded in chasing out the Rockefellerites in the 1980s. This party is today nothing whatsoever other than a vehicle for corporate predation. It pretends to give a shit about abortion or affirmative action to get votes. It pretends to be pious to sucker preacher-programmed Jesus Freaks into voting for it. It pretends to care about national security because a good fright always comes in handy on election day (and also because there's loads of fat, no-bid contracts to be had from the corpulent military-industrial complex). In fact, though, it doesn't care about any of those things.
Indeed, in truth it is a misnomer to even consider the GOP to be American in any real sense of the normal meaning of that term. Ironically, the party of xenophobia and so-called national security has long been little more than a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporations whose locations and tentacles are completely global, and whose only real interest is in importing wealth to shareholders and management, while exporting risk elsewhere. If that means evaporating American jobs by the hundreds of thousands and sending them off to Mexico, China or India -- while getting a tax break for doing so -- so be it. Those folks in Beijing sure know how to crack the heads of union organizers hard, and how to keep wages soft. Not only that, but a little economic insecurity can have a very salubrious effect on those uppity American human resources -- er, employees -- as well. In a very real sense, the only allegiance to America that the owners of the GOP ever manifest is when the country takes on a two-dimensional, green form. Yeah, exactly. It's all about the Benjamins.
What that means is that a moderate, non-corporate GOP is of about as much use to the owners of the party as is sobriety to Britney Spears. Just as a sober Britney Spears is no Britney Spears at all, so a Republican Party that represents the interests of non-elite Americans is less than worthless to the über-wealthy who control the thing. What would be the point of that? Who cares about public service? The national interest? That's for chumps! Better to just get it over with and fold the thing up.
But the politicians are a different breed. With rare exception, any given Republican politician is simply practicing the world's oldest profession under separate cover. Which means they're no more attached to their professed ideology than a hooker is likely to fall in love with the fifteenth sweaty john of the night. They just want to win. A guy like Norm Coleman is an instructive example. When he was at Hofstra University, where I teach, in the late 1960s, he was a long-haired anti-war protestor. Then he cleaned up his act and became a moderate Democratic politician. Sensing the direction the wind was blowing, he switched parties to become a Republican and, horribly, now sits in Paul Wellstone's seat representing Minnesota in the Senate. Six years ago he was all right-wing when that crap was selling like hotcakes, but now he's furiously trying to move back to the center and win re-election in a centrist state. Al Franken is going to destroy him in November, and we'll probably be lucky enough not to hear much from this horrid thing again in the future, but don't be surprised if he becomes a Democrat again.
So, maybe the GOP politicians, as opposed to party's the corporate owners, decide to tack back to the center. After all, this is precisely what the party looked like as late as the 1970s. Back then, the center-right wing (which even included one or two real liberals) was by far and away the dominant tendency in the party, and the Goldwaterites of the far-right were considered to be the cranks that they truly were, about as welcome as a fart in church, but not nearly as funny. Of course, back in the 1970s, using the words 'Ronald Reagan' and 'president' in the same sentence could instantly earn any stand-up comedian howls of laughter. Those days are obviously gone, but they may not be so far from returning. Indeed, this is probably what the McCain candidacy now represents, though pre-November 4th he must still genuflect deeply in the direction of the rapacious right -- whether of the corporate, imperialist or religious stripe.
It is possible that the party could eak out an existence in this form over the coming awful times ahead, reconstituting itself back in its old, pre-Reagan form. The problem it will have, even if it can pull this off, is that it will carry lots of baggage. Obama is going to be a popular president, at least initially, and the anger for the GOP is not going anywhere fast. Moreover, he's smart enough to keep reminding people of the bad old days, and the Republicans are stupid enough to do the same, so the GOP is going to be drowning in roosting chickens for quite some time. Moreover, they will have the same problem in mirror image -- even assuming they can manage to go this route -- that Democrats have had these last decades. That is, the Republicans would likely become Democratic Lite, and why vote for that when you can get the real deal? All of which, of course, is predicated on the notion that the GOP can be unified, and can move from the far right to the center-right, marginalizing the storm trooper kooks of the former group. Good luck with that. Indeed, good luck even finding such moderate Republicans anymore around which to build a new (old) party.
The fourth, and I think most likely, scenario is that the GOP traverses the same path as did its brethren in the UK's Conservative Party. These nasty blokes followed Maggie Thatcher and her hapless semi-acolyte, John Major, first to popularity and then off the cliff into a decade of ridicule and bitter loathing from the British public. The Tories have essentially been completely floundering since 1997 (really, since 1990), dabbling in different policy gambits here and there, dumping leader after losing leader, right up to the present time.
The party hasn't really come together in all that time, nor is David Cameron, its present leader, any sort of amazing politician. I doubt that the British voting public can even identify much about what the Conservative Party stands for to this day. Except for one thing. Whatever they are, they are not the current Labour Party government. And that party, and that government, have become increasingly unpopular. Meanwhile, there sit the Conservatives, just hanging on the sidelines, winning public support simply by default. They're the party that isn't the Labour Party. And, according to the polls, they're vastly more popular now than Gordon Brown's Labour Party, which is essentially a hangover from the legacy of Tony Blair who got too smarmy and too Iraq-obsessed for most British voters, much like John Major inherited all the negativity and none of the charismatic excitement (for some people, at least) of Thatcher.
The America version of that scenario would look like this: Obama wins, he becomes a Tony Blair-type figure who combines (too) smooth rhetoric with a lack of real policy substance, along with perhaps a monumental screw-up the equivalent of Blair hitching his wagon to an imbecile like George W. Bush and his imperial adventure sold on lies. Or perhaps Obama's great, but his Democratic successor isn't, and ultimately there is a scandal or two. I don't think Obama will be a nothing-burger, and I don't think he would do something as stupid as Blair did. I do worry, though, that he might not be bold enough to address the multiple crises he will inherit.
In any case, two decades from now, the public could be in the same place the British were after eighteen years of Tory insanity. Or that American voters were after twenty years of Democratic rule ending with an unpopular Harry Truman presiding over an unpopular war in Korea. Meaning that Republicans, if they could hang on that long, could resurrect themselves at that point as simply the party that isn't the Democratic Party.
This is all very speculative, of course. But the point is to envision where the GOP might go from here, and what are the probabilities of any of these four scenarios.
My guess is that you can't bury these guys forever, and that, anyhow, the new Republican Party that emerges after their near-death experience in 2008 will be much more moderate than the crazed one of the Reagan-through-W era (and how could it not be?).
All of that would be a major improvement on the horror story we've all lived through these last decades, though of course, even better would be to slay the beast once and for all.
Meanwhile, whatever happens, progressives are about to live through the Woodstock of schadenfreude.
Enjoy the ride. Boy, have we ever earned it.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.