Is the Republican Party in peril?

Conservative thinkers and political historians think the GOP could be at the end of its historic 40-year grasp on power.

AP/Charles Dharapak/File
Sen. John McCain and President Bush wave to supporters in Phoenix, Ariz. on May 27, 2008.

The GOP opens its convention here Monday as a party in peril – hurricane or not.

Hobbled by an unpopular president, a disillusioned and divided base, and low poll ratings on almost every domestic issue, the party of Nixon and Reagan and Bush may well be at the end of a historic 40-year grasp on power, say conservative thinkers and political historians.

Republicans lost both houses of Congress in 2006. They were defeated in special elections this year in congressional districts that in some cases hadn't elected a Democrat since the days of Lyndon Johnson. And they are at risk of deeper losses on Capitol Hill in November.

Republican leaders in some states have struggled to recruit candidates for local office. GOP voter registrations are down. And there are signs of a generational shift that could play out over several election cycles: Nearly 60 percent of voters under 30 now identify themselves as Democrats, more than tripling the party's edge over the GOP in that age group since 2000, according to the Pew Research Center.

The man set to accept his party's nomination Thursday, John McCain, is a maverick disdained by the conservatives who turned Barry Goldwater's lonely cry against big government into a shrewd, sprawling, and well-funded movement. Whether Mr. McCain is the future of the party or a placeholder during a time of soul-searching hinges on the November election.

Cause for both hope and some hand-wringing among Republicans this year is that Americans like McCain far more than they do the party itself.

He distanced himself even further from the GOP establishment Friday with his vice-presidential pick. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is a young, outside-the-beltway choice with a record of taking on entrenched interests.

Even so, many Republicans are bracing for a period of exile. A debate is already under way over its future, with conservative visionaries from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on down arguing about what it will take for the Grand Old Party, its best ideas now spent, to stage a comeback.

"The party's in pretty bad shape – it's gone wrong in so many areas," says Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma and the author of the new book "Reclaiming Conservatism."

"If the Republican Party is not thoroughly repudiated in this coming election it will only be to the extent that John McCain and some of the other Republican candidates have managed to distance themselves from what's happened over the last eight years," he says.

Their gathering in this Midwestern city offers a fresh chance for Republicans to make their case to a skeptical nation.

The GOP convention begins just four days after Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination at a Denver football stadium thronged by some 84,000 cheering supporters, some of whom waited in a line six miles long to hear his speech.

But if the Republican convention here goes as planned, the spotlight will, for a change, be all McCain's. And that is both a risk and an opportunity.

"The peril is trying to compete with Obama, because they can't Out-Obama Obama," says Nancy Beck Young, an American political historian at the University of Houston.

"McCain needs to focus on his own compelling story" as a decorated war hero, she says. "He needs to remind people why they liked him in 2000. The maverick, bipartisan McCain needs to come out, and the Bush-loving McCain needs to take a vacation between now and November."

Mr. Edwards, the former Oklahoma congressman, goes further.

"This is his chance to come out and do something inspirational so you have Republicans jumping up and down in their seats and cheering," says Edwards. "He needs to have people walk out of the Xcel Center with a mission – that we want this guy to be president. And I don't think he's there yet."

The modern Republican era traces its roots to Senator Goldwater's 1960 book, "The Conscience of a Conservative," an anti-Communist, small-government manifesto that still serves as a kind of bible for ideological purists.

Goldwater, an Arizona Senator, lost his bid for the presidency in 1964. But his ideas soon fueled a larger reaction against what critics saw as the excesses of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the social movements, antiwar protests, and inner-city riots of the late 1960s.

Tapping into the cultural anxieties of working-class whites and Southerners, the party began to shed its image as a country club for Northern elites and big business.

"The modern right rose out of a widespread concern that pluralistic, cosmopolitan forces threatened America's national identity," American University Prof. Allan Lichtman writes in a new book, White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement. "Anti-pluralism, in turn, gave the right a mass base and a passion that economic conservatism lacks."

Richard Nixon called the disaffected Americans "the silent majority" and captured the presidency in 1968. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan brought the conservative movement to its apotheosis, winning landslide elections with support from a coalition of fiscal conservatives, defense hawks, and socially conservative blue-collar voters who came to be known as Reagan Democrats.

Reagan delivered on much of the conservative agenda: He cut taxes, built up the military, moved federal courts to the right, and helped bring an end to the Soviet Union. Though Bill Clinton would win the White House in 1992, the GOP took the House of Representatives two years later for the first time in four decades. Republicans called it a "revolution."

The disputed 2000 election, settled by the United States Supreme Court, was a shaky start for President George W. Bush. But the Sept. 11 attacks momentarily united the country, vaulting his approval ratings to 90 percent in October 2001.

Then his popularity started a long, steady decline. The Iraq war divided the country, particularly after claims about weapons of mass destruction proved false. Bush's support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants alienated Southern conservatives. The religious right, a voting bloc that twice helped elect him to office, fractured amid a growing sense that Bush had failed to deliver on a range of cultural issues.

Meanwhile, fiscal hawks watched with dismay as government grew and deficits soared. Finally, say political analysts, the administration's response to hurricane Katrina exposed an ill-prepared bureaucracy staffed by political appointees, like Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with few qualifications for the job.

"When did Bush lose his mojo? I think Katrina was the turning point," says Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, author of "The Age of Reagan." "Even after the Iraq war, he had just enough credibility left, because Democrats were seen as so weak on defense and national security. "But 2005 [the year Katrina hit] was a disaster for Bush. He seemed to be ineffective, and his subordinates seemed to be manifestly incompetent. You had an X-ray into how the administration was working – and not working."

(It is cruel timing for Republicans that hurricane Gustav is forecast to reach the Gulf Coast on the opening day of the GOP convention.)

By this past April, Bush's approval rating had hit an all-time low of 28 percent, according to Gallup, a level of popularity about the same as Jimmy Carter's during the oil crisis and Nixon's after Watergate.

In an August Gallup poll, just 17 percent of Americans said they were "satisfied with the way things are going in the United States."

Voters told pollsters this year that they even saw Democrats as stronger on a signature GOP issue – terrorism. Further, an analysis in August by the Center for Responsive Politics found that US troops overseas had donated six times as much money to Obama as they had to McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war whose father and grandfather had been admirals.

The setbacks have left many leading conservatives predicting a Republican winter.

"Disaster," the conservative commentator Laura Ingraham declared earlier this year on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" during an interview with Mr. Gingrich, the former House Speaker.

"If we don't break out of business as usual in the next five or six months," Gingrich concurred, "we'll simply lose."

Talk radio and conservative magazines like The National Review and Human Events have brimmed with anguished debates over the meaning of McCain's nomination. McCain backed campaign finance reform and immigration measures loathed by conservatives, voted against Bush tax cuts, and rarely talks about his Christian faith.

The conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has labeled McCain a "liberal" who jeopardizes "the American way of life as we've always known it," according to news accounts. In February, right-wing commentator Ann Coulter told Fox News she'd sooner vote for Hillary Clinton than McCain, whom she branded a "Democrat."

But other conservatives see McCain, however imperfect, as Republicans' best chance in a year when voters across the political spectrum have lost patience with the charged partisan acrimony of the Bush era.

Some 53 percent of likely voters in an ABC News/Washington Post poll this May said they thought Democrats would do the best job "coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years," compared with just 32 percent who thought Republicans would.

But voters seem far more sanguine about McCain himself. Before a modest bounce for Obama following the Democratic convention, recent polls showed them virtually tied.

"No regular Republican would be tying or slightly beating the Democratic candidate in this atmosphere," Gingrich wrote in a May article in Human Events. "It is a sign of how much McCain is a nontraditional Republican that he is sustaining his personal popularity despite his party's collapse."

A key problem for the party, say some conservative critics, is that it has in many ways failed to transcend the debates over gay marriage, abortion, gun rights, and other wedge issues that had helped secure years of GOP victories.

"There was a kind of intellectual fatigue," says Yuval Levin, a former healthcare aide in the Bush White House who is now a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "It was dangerous in the sense that not enough of our political leaders were aware there was a problem. You'd ask people why Republicans did badly in 2006, and they'd say, 'Well, there were the corruption scandals, the war.' Conservatives were reluctant to say, 'We need to think hard about what it is we're offering the country to face the challenges of the moment.' "

What those challenges are and how to face them is a pressing issue for conservative thinkers, who have been busy turning out articles, books, and other prescriptions for renewal.

Gingrich argues that cultural polarization – a chief tactic of former Bush adviser Karl Rove – has run its course. "The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if Republicans try to run an anti-Obama, anti-Reverend Wright ... campaign they are simply going to fail," he wrote in Human Events, alluding to the Illinois senator's controversial former pastor. "This model has already been tested with disastrous results."

In his new book "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, urges Republicans to scrap their reflexive advocacy for tax cuts and deregulation. Particularly in difficult times, he asserts, Americans want competent government more than small government. "There are things only government can do, and if we conservatives wish to be entrusted with the management of government, we must prove that we care enough about government to manage it well."

One of the most talked-about books of the genre is "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." The authors, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, young editors at Atlantic Monthly, assert that while the GOP has learned to speak to the cultural concerns of working-class whites, it has failed to address their economic unease. They propose a mix of wage subsidies for the working poor, a bigger child tax credit, and steps toward a universal healthcare system rooted in the free market.

While an old guard sees a return to a Reagan-era conservatism as the only salvation, a few conservatives, however paradoxically, see rebirth in a vote for Obama.

"Of all the obstacles to a revival of genuine conservatism, this absence of self-awareness constitutes the greatest," Andrew Bacevich, a conservative Boston University historian wrote in March in The American Conservative magazine. "Recognition that the Iraq War has been a fool's errand – that cheap oil, the essential lubricant of the American way of life, is gone for good – may have a salutary effect. Acknowledging failure just might open the door to self-reflection."

Gloomy about their prospects this November, some right-wing thinkers see at least one silver lining: the legacy of four decades of conservative dominance on the era's most successful Democrats. Bill Clinton was a centrist who reformed welfare and backed free trade; Obama advertises his appeal to Republicans ("Obamacans," in his campaign lingo), and he backs a range of policies that mix free-market ideas with government regulation.

"What is remarkable about the cautious, unimaginative campaign speeches of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is how much they bear the stamp of conservative intellectual debates that preceded them," Daniel Casse wrote in April in the conservative Weekly Standard. "These liberal Democratic presidential aspirants coyly demur on tax increases. Their discussions of foreign policy invoke American credibility. They talk about efficiency in government. Yes, conservatives know these are poll-massaged, manufactured personas; yet surely they reflect how much of the conservative flavoring has seeped into the Democratic drinking water."

[Editor's note: The original version misstated when the GOP lost the Senate.]

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