Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE FUTURE OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY....The basic thesis of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's Off Center is that the Republican party has been taken over by its ultraconservative activist base, and this in turn has pulled the party far away from the center of the American electorate. Normally this would spell doom for a political party, but a variety of institutional controls have converged that are likely to keep Republicans in power for a long time despite their increasing distance from the mainstream.

There's a bit of devil's advocate in what comes next, but I want to argue with this premise in two ways.

First, since domestic politics is the focus of the book, let's take a look at George Bush's major domestic accomplishments over the past five years (I've discussed this point before in more detail here). Here it is: No Child Left Behind, several big tax cuts, a waffle on stem cells, the Patriot Act, Sarbanes-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, the Department of Homeland Security, Medicare prescription coverage, the bankruptcy bill, a big highway bill, an energy bill, a tort reform bill, some conservative appellate judges, two conservative but non-wingnut Supreme Court nominees, and a record of spending increases unmatched since LBJ.

Now, there are a couple of big conservative items here, most notably the tax cuts and the appellate judges. And there are a couple of modest conservative items. And it's also true that many of the liberal items contain stealth features designed to advance conservative interests. And there have been some nasty executive orders that aren't on this list. Still, let's face it: overall, this is not the record of a party dedicated to ramming through a movement conservative agenda. If the party is really so off center, and if institutional controls make them invulnerable to voter backlash, why is their conservative record so spotty?

That's point one. For point two, I hand the microphone to David Ignatius:

Bush and the Republicans had a chance after 2004 to become the country's natural governing party....Bush squandered this opportunity by falling into the trap that has snared the modern GOP of playing to the base rather than to the nation. The Republicans behave as if the country agrees with them on issues, when that demonstrably isn't so. The country doesn't agree about Social Security, doesn't agree about the ethical issues that were dramatized by the torment of Terri Schiavo, doesn't agree about abortion.

....Principles are a fine thing, but a narrow, partisan definition of principle has led the Republicans to a dead end. Their inability to transcend their base and speak to the country as a whole is now painfully obvious. Like the Democrats in their years of decline, they are screaming at each other not realizing how far they have drifted from the mid-channel markers that have always led to open waters and defined success in American politics.

If you put Ignatius' point together with mine, what you get is this: it's true that the activist base of the Republican party is pretty far distant from the middle of American politics, and George Bush recognized this in his first term, mostly steering a center-right course. However, in his second term it's all falling apart, just the way conventional political science suggests it should. The more that Bush panders to the Republican base (Social Security, Terri Schiavo), the more he loses the support of Middle America. At the same time, the more he tries to tack to the center (Katrina, Harriet Miers), the angrier his base gets. Centripetal forces are tearing the Republican coalition apart, and suddenly Beltway buzz suggests that Republicans might actually lose Congress in 2006.

This suggests two possibilities to me. The first is that conventional political science still has it right. It took a few years, but the radicalism of the Republican base is finally putting a stake through the heart of the party, just as you'd expect. The second possibility is that we wouldn't even be talking about this if it weren't for 9/11: Bush would have long ago lost control of his coalition and would have gotten clobbered in 2004. What we're seeing today really is a special case, not a permanent realignment.

To Jacob and Paul, then, this question: what do you think of the events of the past few weeks? Do you think it's just a bit of ordinary second term-itis that will blow over? Or do you think the normal order of things is reasserting itself? And does any of this affect the thesis of your book in any way?

Kevin Drum 2:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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