MORE PUNDITRY ... The day after an election, Washington's National Press Club resembles an ideological bazaar, with soothsayers, craftsmen, and faith healers from both parties peddling interpretations of past and future in adjacent rooms. Step across the hall, enter a different worldview.
At 10 am, for instance, Howard Dean gave a rousing talk on Democrats' opportunity to assume the mantle of national security, while in the next room two conservative powerbrokers, David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, surveyed hurricane damage before a more modest spattering of reporters.
Keene picked up on a theme we’d begun to hear before the election: If Republicans lost, it would be because they had abandoned core conservative principles for the sake of political expediency:
This year’s election turned out to be … a referendum on the performance of Republicans in the White House and the Congress rather than a contest between competing ideological visions. Indeed, this may have been the least ideological election in modern memory.
Alan Wolfe has written for The Washington Monthly on the difficulties of extracting "pure" conservative ideology from recent transgressions born of a disdain for government.
That said, Democrats did not win with ideology, either. They won with smart campaigns, a sweeping mantra for "change," and a slate of candidates that some strategists on the right and left have dubbed, not without reason, moderately conservative. Victorious Democrats such as Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, Bob Casey, and Jim Webb are variously pro-military, pro-life, pro-balanced budget, and pro-gun rights. A few years ago, they might have been labeled Republican Lite, as though moderate Democrats had no legitimate claim to these issues. Now there seems to be a more fundamental (and flexible) discussion of what principles will unite the Democratic caucus in the future.
Meanwhile the Republican party faces its own, more painful, identity crisis. On the eve of the elections, Club for Growth polled 800 likely voters in 15 of the most competitive districts on the eve of the election (including 13 formerly GOP districts that went for Democrats). Two-thirds agreed with the notion that the GOP used to be the party of fiscal responsibility and limited government but was not today. By an 11-point margin, likely voters expressed greater confidence in Democrats to handle select fiscal matters responsibly. “We have lost our brand,” Toomey bemoaned.
How will these undercurrents color the hunt for a 2008 nominee, in both parties? Keene said, speaking for Republicans, that the long primaries will be about piecing together a coherent mission in the “post-Bush era.” (From his standpoint, that means a return to bedrock conservatism.) I think Democrats will also be looking for contenders to forge a common and compelling purpose, out of diverse aims and ambitions. Whether you label the new crop of Democratic congressmembers “moderately conservative,” as Keene does, or “populist pragmatic,” as Democratic pollster Celinda Lake did in another press conference, they do collectively represent something new.
The next presidential election will be the first since 1952 in which neither a sitting president nor vice president will be on the ticket. Not only is the field wide open, but the influence of some traditional interest groups may be waning. (This election cycle, for instance, the NRA went in with guns blazing for Sens. Jim Talent in Missouri and Conrad Burns in Montana -- both incumbents, both in sagebrush country, both lost.) With no clear successors, few obvious kingmakers (unless you count purely fundraising machinery), and dissimilar ideological currents in both parties, we have arrived at an interesting crossroads.
—Christina Larson 5:36 PM
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