In the aftermath of the 2006 mid-term elections, I wrote this post lamenting about how the Republican Party’s losses that year were indicative of a widening gulf between the libertarian wing (which I consider myself to be a part of) and the social conservatives. This trend has sprung up more prominently as an issue in the blogosphere over the past couple of weeks as it has become almost assured that Americans will choose Barack Obama over John McCain for President on November 4th (unless you believe that every single reputable poll is incorrect). The internal struggle between the various factions of the GOP is characterized in a number of ways (i.e. elites vs. evangelicals or urban vs. rural), but it still basically comes down to a fight over whether the party should focus on fiscal conservatism or social conservatism.
Since 1980, Ronald Reagan was able to create a coalition of those two conflicting groups that would be a force in American politics for a quarter of a century. Indeed, George W. Bush won two elections by leveraging this powerful coalition – the irony is that the splinter of the party is going to come on his watch (whether this was substantially his fault is a discussion for another day). Even before the nation’s economy became the predominant issue over the past month, John McCain was handed a Republican Party that was in disarray without a vision (and in turn, his campaign has failed to create any vision in its place). In the zeal with which the current leadership of the GOP to use the “50-plus-1” model of securing an ideological base with a slight majority, they forgot that moderate independents are the ones that elect Presidents in this country. This group increasingly felt shunned by the Republicans, which resulted in the changing of control in Congress to the Democrats in 2006 and putting the 2008 GOP Presidential candidate, no matter who it was, at a severe disadvantage against any Democratic candidate. The Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world believed that those people that didn’t meet every single litmus test of being supposedly conservative were RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) that ought to be kicked out of the party and ridiculed (Right Wing Nut House has a great post on this subject – despite the title of this blog by Rick Moran, who is the brother of Nightline anchor Terry Moran, it is actually one of the most well-reasoned and rationally-based conservative sites out there). Well, guess what – those so-called RINOs did end up leaving in great numbers, taking with them tons of independent voters that have similar viewpoints, and could very well end up giving the Democrats both the White House and a veto-proof Congress.
I’ll be straight-forward with you on my personal bias here – there is absolutely no political philosophy that I abhor more than populism. Most people that have my political worldview – fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and live in a large progressive city – would say the same thing. Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party most open to populists and they have certainly hammered home that type of message on the economic front in this election (which is why I will not be voting for Barack Obama). However, the Republican Party has increasingly become more populist since the 1990s (encapsulated by Pat Buchanan’s horrific speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention – of course, he came back this year and called Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention the greatest convention address ever). Even worse is the anti-intellectualism that seems to have come along with this rising tide of populism in both the GOP (once again, Rick Moran hits this point directly). As the evangelical and rural influence in the Republican Party has increased, so has the corresponding aversion to intellectualism. (Minneapolis Red Sox alludes to this in one of his latest posts.) It wasn’t that long ago that people with higher income and educational levels were voting Republican by large margins over Democrats. Yet, the GOP has become so beholden to its populist wing that it is now the opposite, where the wealthy and highly-educated are actually voting for Democrats more (despite the lingering perception that the Republican Party is the party for the rich).
These Republican populists are more likely to be ideologues on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and immigration. This isn’t a good thing for the Republicans simply because of demographic trends which will likely come to fruition in this year’s election. The interior Western states that voted heavily for Bush in 2000 and 2004 have more libertarians as opposed to evangelicals, which means that they are less likely to vote on socially conservative issues (other than possibly gun ownership). Those states also happen to have the fastest-growing Hispanic populations outside of Florida, which will make the Republican Party pay for its nativist rhetoric over the past two years (even though John McCain was at the forefront of trying to get a compromise passed on this issue, which made him so unpopular with the GOP populist base that it almost doomed him in the party nomination process from the get-go). Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that McCain is poised to lose Colorado and Nevada, which would essentially make it impossible for him to win the Presidency.
At the same time, a number of Southern states are seeing rapid changes in their own demographics due to an influx non-evangelical and educated Northerners transplants. Case in point is Virginia, which has gone from a solid-red state to one where Obama appears to have a commanding lead as a result of the increasingly Democratic area of the Washington, D.C. suburbs. North Carolina has experienced a similar influx and, not surprisingly, what once was a lock for the Republicans is now a toss-up. Essentially, these moves are mirroring what has happened in suburban areas across the country, which were once rock-hard Republican bases but are now leaning Democratic. (When DuPage County is having toss-up races, the GOP should note that it’s in a whole lot of trouble.) Add in a worrisome economy on top of all of those demographic shifts and the likelihood of America witnessing a landslide early on Tuesday night (as opposed to staying up late to see if a couple of precincts in Florida and Ohio get their returns in to decide the election) is extremely high.
While John McCain’s campaign has been far from stellar at any level (whether it’s the incoherent day-to-day messaging, the pick of Sarah Palin as the VP candidate that has backfired with independent voters, or the complete lack of an overarching message as evidenced by this New York Times Magazine piece), it’s important to note that he personally is actually polling better than the Republican Party generally. This means that if McCain loses, it will be more because of the long-term political miscalculations of the party behind him (plus the economy) as opposed to anything his campaign could have possibly done. The Republican Party needs to take note of this since there will be the inevitable ill-advised mouth-breathing calls from the conservative media establishment in the event of a McCain loss that he failed to generate any excitement from the conservative base and moved away from the moral values of the party.
Even though I will be voting for John McCain because I truly believe he’s the one national politician of our time that has proven that he is an independent thinker even when it was politically detrimental to him (I personally like Obama and will ultimately be fine with him as President, but I concur with Ruth Marcus in failing to see how his policies break with the traditional Democratic Party approach at all – the fact that Obama’s incredibly well-oiled Chicago-style campaign has been able to get the American public to largely perceive that he is the supposed change agent while McCain is “four more years of Bush” is sad on a number of levels) and hope that he will somehow win (which would be kind of like saying that I hope that the Illini will get to the BCS National Championship Game this year – technically, they could if they win out and every team ahead of them lost every single other game, just as McCain could win by sweeping every single battleground state despite the fact he’s not leading in any of them with less than a week to go), in a way, a horrible loss for the Republicans next Tuesday would be a good thing long-term for the party. This will put the discord between the libertarians and the populists front-and-center such that the GOP has to figure out which direction it’s going to take since the old Reagan coalition will have become fodder for the history books. The Republicans have the opportunity to either perform a make-over to become a true majority party that invites intellectual debate or alternatively could choose to be a vocal minority that only cares about ideological purity. Is the party going to opt to grow and attempt to expand its base by adopting a libertarian platform in light of substantial demographic trends, even in the traditionally Republican strongholds in the South? Or is the party going to look to protect its evangelical core because they are the loudest and most activist group? If the Republicans take the former approach, they will retain me as a supporter in general. However, it will be the last straw for me and a whole lot of other people if the party decides to largely stick the same old socially backward tactics to scare up evangelical votes.
(Image from Los Angeles Times)