PATHETIC REPUBLICANS, who can save you now? With all due respect to Ming the Merciless and all due deference to Sen. John McCain’s pending arrival on a Hawk-man rocket cycle in 2008, the answer is that Republicans can, and are going to have to, save themselves. To do that, what’s required is frank acknowledgment that the national majority that brought them to congressional power in 1994 is a thing of the past–no longer there, or no longer theirs.
The wave that gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years was truly national in reach and scope. You could see its effect in every region of the country, though of course it was at its strongest in the South, where the last redoubts of the yellow-dog Democrats were being overrun.
The GOP, under the minority leadership of Newt Gingrich and his chief lieutenant, Dick Armey, sought to “nationalize” the ’94 election around its Contract With America, a 10-point plan for legislative action in the first 100 days of GOP control of the House. It gave Republican activists something to be for–in addition to what they were against, a government in which Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House.
The suddenly embattled Democrats portrayed the Contract With America as a document of political radicalism, and their charge gained plausibility thanks to the GOP’s own hype celebrating a “Republican Revolution.” But the contract was actually a shrewd exercise in coalition politics. Its designers hoped to attract new voters to the GOP by offering a menu of policy proposals that presented a clear alternative to the Democrats and already tested well in polling and focus groups. Moreover, it was decidedly silent on abortion and offered little to nothing explicitly addressing the concerns of social conservatives in the “culture wars.” The expectation was that social conservatives would be satisfied with more space for their private gardens thanks to a less intrusive, less taxing federal government.
The GOP victory in 1994 had other important sources. It was a product of the arrogant culture of longtime one-party rule in the House; a Democratic administration more interested in tax hikes, a government takeover of health care, and gays in the military than the centrist agenda Bill Clinton had campaigned on; and a favorable electoral environment featuring numerous open seats, a large freshman class upon which the full advantages of incumbency had yet to settle, and Voting Rights Act-influenced gerrymanders that made suburban districts more GOP-friendly. Still, the contract was the unifying document of the early years of GOP majority: where to look for the answer to the question of what to do next.
The electoral strategy the 1994 results invited was the one Karl Rove successfully exploited in three elections before stumbling badly in the fourth this year: The way to win elections is to find your people and get them to the polls. The premise is that “your people” are out there in sufficient numbers to produce victories, given a technically competent effort to turn them out. You win elections not through conspicuous efforts to reach out to the middle to persuade undecided voters, who probably don’t pay much attention to politics anyway. Rather, you focus your efforts on “your people.”
The 2004 GOP success with this strategy took Democrats by surprise and delivered George W. Bush a second term. In the run-up to the 2006 election, by contrast, Rove and other GOP optimists spent a lot of time talking about the importance of the coming get-out-the-vote mobilization. Whether they actually believed it or were just blowing smoke in an attempt to keep “bad” from turning to “worse” is an open question. What is not in doubt is that “your people” weren’t there, at least not in sufficient numbers. Nancy Johnson, a 12-term moderate from Connecticut, got about 20,000 fewer votes in 2006 than she did in the previous off-year election. Could be a turnout problem, no? But her winning opponent this time got 32,000 more votes than the Democrat Johnson beat in 2002. Johnson lost by more in 2006 than she won by in 2002. That is a problem of which turnout is at most a small part.
In New Mexico, Heather Wilson, whose fate at this writing is undecided, got 10,000 more votes in 2006 than she did in 2002. That’s an indication of a superb turnout operation. But her Democratic opponent got about 25,000 more votes this year than her unsuccessful challenger in 2002. If getting out all your voters doesn’t amount to 50 percent or more, there are limits to a strategy based on that premise.
Johnson’s defeat and Wilson’s cliffhanger are also emblematic of the geography of the GOP loss in 2006. Republicans have now been all but wiped out in the Northeast. This is not a sudden development. Beginning with the 1996 election, the GOP tide, as it receded, did so unevenly. The South stayed strong, still recording GOP takeaways from Democrats until this year, but the two coasts and the upper Midwest were becoming much more difficult territory for the GOP. By now, the de-Republicanization of these regions is about complete, and the problem has spread to the high plains, the Midwest, and the noncoastal West, such as Wilson’s district in and around Albuquerque.
That more or less leaves the GOP with a majority it has the potential to turn out only in the South. And unless Republicans are content to be a regionally strong minority party, they need to do something different.
What might that be? Well, the first step is to understand that the issue mix in the Contract With America, though it produced an electoral majority in its day, has played itself out. Some of that 1994 agenda has been enacted, such as an end to the welfare entitlement. Some of it has proven impossible to enact even by a GOP-controlled Congress and a Republican president. Some of it, for example the call for term limits, responds to concerns that are simply dated.
As the salience of the Contract issues faded, the GOP congressional majority in the House seemed to turn more and more to the largely symbolic politics of the social issues, conservative identity politics, and the culture wars–the ban on “partial-birth” abor tion, the intervention on behalf of Terri Schiavo, the Defense of Marriage Act and the attempt to amend the Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, the limitation of federal funding of stem cell research, and, of course, restrictionist immigration policy.
The GOP stand on these issues is indeed overwhelmingly popular in the South. The ballot initiative banning gay marriage passed with 81 percent of the vote in Tennessee. But to take that very issue, if you look at how similar initiatives fared in other states, you see a much more closely divided electorate (and in Arizona, the initiative seems to have failed). Moreover, the cumulative impression of the GOP congressional posturing in the culture war is that that’s all there is. The party has come to be defined as representing the concerns these issues reflect–and little else, or not enough else. That’s an environment in which the revelation of Rep. Mark Foley’s interest in teenage male pages detonates with maximum impact.
What Republicans need is to be something more than the party of culture war–and tax cutting, of course. You can tap into your base to deliver victory if your base is big enough. The GOP’s no longer is. And its right wing is solid. Which means that the only place to go to enlarge it is in the center.
The American electorate is center-right. The core supporters of the GOP are conservative, which constitutes an advantage for the party over Democrats, whose core supporters are liberal or progressive. There are more conservatives. But if the GOP is only a conservative party, in the sense of being no longer able or willing to devise a Contract-With-America-style issue mix whose appeal extends beyond the social conservatism of the South, then it will be a minority party so long as Democrats understand they must appeal to the center. As they did this year, and could do again.