Which way for the Republican party after November?
Tuesday last, I was invited to speak in a debate at Portcullis House by Liberal International on why a McCain presidency might not be such a bad thing after all (for Liberals). I threw four or five arguments into the mix (some persuasive, others less so), but one thought in particular has festered ever since: that if John McCain loses, the impact on the direction of the Republican Party could be significant.
The basic principle was that, in seeking to learn the lessons of 2008, the Republican party would choose a new direction. By blaming McCain’s centrism, and seeing his appeal to moderates as undermining his support on the Religious Right, I suggested to this group of young Liberals that the lesson the GOP might learn from a severe defeat would be that the days of moderates and mavericks was over, and that for those on the Liberal/Left, that was not a prospect that should be welcomed. I thought it was telling that Colin Powell spoke out against the rightwards-shift in his party, and that he expressed fears for the judges Republicans would appoint – there are clearly many Republicans who prefer John McCain’s version of Republicanism to that of President Bush, but as many of them are crossing the aisle to support Obama as fighting to save the party they love.
I would suggest that the direction the GOP decides to take after the November elections, assuming that they do not keep the White House, will be largely dictated by where the blame lies for their defeat. Much of it will lie with the Bush Administration, some with Congressional leadership, but the campaign is the entity that is in prime focus for recrimination.
I think it would be harsh to blame John McCain for defeat in a year that would have been a blow-out for almost any other candidate. Similarly, I think moderate Republicans would be misguided if they sought to blame the selection of Sarah Palin for their woes. It might have been a strategically fatal move, but tactically it kept McCain competitive for an extra six or seven weeks, when failing to keep Obama’s lead in single digits would have seen the RNC spend their money on Congressional races instead of the White House contest.
I think the Republican campaign was poorly fought this year, largely due what was perceived as a raging internal battle between McCain’s maverick centrism and the Rovian and social conservative campaign managers hired at the insistence of the RNC. The recriminations have already begun, and I find it hard to see that in 2012 the GOP would again nominate a candidate as far from the successful base that turned out for Bush in 2004.
I don’t think that lessons of failure should be entirely attributable to the McCain-Palin campaign – unless they lose by more than 10%, they will have outperformed the expectations of a generic Republican ticket, and in a particularly difficult year against a truly formidable Democratic campaign. None the less, I would be surprised if the direction of the GOP was not in some way swayed by a reaction to what now looks like defeat across the board. The demographics, character, and sheer electoral muscle of the social conservatives in the party will, I believe, cause this battle for the soul of Republicanism to be won, not by the McCain/Bloomberg/Scwartzenegger wing of the party, but rather by wing(s) represented by candidates like Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo.
Party leaders in the UK have a more dramatic effect on the nature and direction of their party – their tenure can runs for years, and their decision-making powers are more wide-ranging. The US political parties only have a clear ‘leader’ (in opposition) when they are running for President, and so it is harder for a nominee to stamp his authority (through patronage and political appointments) without actually winning the White House. McCain’s candidacy has done little to bolster moderates whilst he was running, and shouldering the blame for defeat might be the only role it is allowed to assume.
The only shred of comfort that I can see for the Republican party moderates is that it was the crushing defeat of another Arizona Senator, Barry Goldwater, that led to the birth of modern American Conservatism. Perhaps it takes the ashes of electoral humiliation for a wing of the party to understand how it can re-assert its influence. Whatever the direction, I think the potential scale of the pending defeat (especially in the House and Senate) will force the GOP to recruit new talent as its veteran politicians are deposed, and that the chance for the Republican party to re-invent itself will be only too appealing for any candidates looking to seek the nomination in four years time (starting in perhaps only 24 months).
Unless the polls, pundits, and betting markets are hopelessly mistaken on a scale not seen since Truman-Dewey in 1948 (a fear that has induced me to purchase a little ensurance with my Obama winnings), the Republican party is facing a catastrophe on November 4th. Who they blame, and to whom they turn, could turn out to be one of the great legacies of the 2008 Presidential election.