WHY REPUBLICANS CAN'T GOVERN FROM THE CENTER... A year ago, California Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar was in a heap of trouble. He had tried to pass, in swaggeringly partisan fashion, four controversial ballot measures. All of them lost, and his popularity was plummeting. To right himself, the governor purged his staff, reached out to the Democratic legislature, and embraced popular center-left positions on global warming, prescription drugs, and the minimum wage. His popularity soared. Last week, he won reelection with 55 percent of the vote.
President George W. Bush also found himself in trouble last year. His Social Security privatization plan had flopped. Iraq was descending into chaos. Corruption scandals shook Congress. But rather than admitting error, moderating his tone and reaching out to his opponents, the president did the opposite. He painted critics of his war policies as terrorist appeasers, gambling that support from the GOP’s conservative base would get the party through the midterms—a strategy most congressional Republicans supported. That decision to “stay the course”—in Iraq and with the conservative Republican agenda generally--failed to forestall, and probably intensified, last week’s political bloodbath.
The midterm elections reaffirmed an old political truth: no party that veers too far from the ideological center of America can hold power for long.
That truth went into temporary abeyance after 9/11, as moderate voters, rattled by fears of terrorism, lent their support to the GOP despite their discomfort with the party’s hard-right views (for several years poll after poll has shown that voters support Democratic positions over Republican ones on most major issues, from health care to the environment). But that willing suspension of disbelief vanished once voters came to see the administration’s incompetent management of the Iraq war as itself a major threat to national security.
Why the president chose defiance over accommodation—why, for instance, he fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the election rather than before—is a question for historians. Instead, let’s look forward. If the president wants to salvage what’s left of his administration, and congressional Republicans want to rebuild their tarnished image, their best hope is to follow Schwarzeneggar’s example: tack towards the center, work with Democrats, and put their stamp on substantive, popular initiatives.
Yet there is no reason to expect they will do so anytime soon. That’s because the conservative ascendancy, which began with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and ended last week, has left a legacy of habits, convictions, and institutions that will guide Republican behavior in Washington long after that behavior has stopped making political sense.
Consider two back-to-back speeches by the president last week. On Wednesday, in what establishment Washington took to be a bold concessionary move, Bush nominated as Rumsfeld’s replacement Robert Gates, his father’s former CIA director. Gates is a member of the foreign policy “realist” school that has been highly critical of the decision to invade Iraq. Yet the very next day in the Rose Garden the president urged the lame duck Congress to approve the nomination of UN Ambassador John Bolton, a divisive figure championed by neoconservatives whom Democrats and some moderate Republicans refused to confirm last year (Bush gave Bolton the job anyway with a recess appointment which will expire when Congress adjourns this year). The president also called on Congress to pass legislation retroactively authorizing his warrantless domestic surveillance program, a bill opposed by most Democrats. Bush made these remarks almost immediately after a lunch meeting with Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi in which the two purportedly vowed to work together in a bipartisan manner. These were not the moves of a White House interested in fundamentally changing course, but one still intent on using every bit of power it has to forward an ideologically conservative agenda.
All over DC last week, Republicans dismissed the notion that an ideological course correction is in order. At an event at the National Press Club, American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene argued that the elections were a referendum not on conservative ideology but on “the performance of Republicans in the White House and the Congress.” In fact, what really hurt the GOP, Keene said, was its deviation from conservative principles such as smaller government (as if Republicans might have endeared themselves to voters by cutting popular spending programs). At another post-election conference at the conservative Heritage Foundation, majority whip Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO) made a similar point. “Our ideas didn’t get beat,” Blunt declared, “we did.”
Asked what his party’s legislative priorities would be in the new Congress, Blunt rattled off a list of obscure conservative agenda items, such as time limits on consent decrees to rein in activist judges and “loser pays” rules for plaintiffs in religious expression lawsuits. These are controversial measures Republicans couldn’t pass when they controlled the House. They stand about zero chance of going anywhere in a Democratic-controlled chamber. That Blunt, the House Republican’s likely number two man next year, listed them as some of his party’s top agenda items tells you how far GOP lawmakers are from moderating their views.
Republicans may have taken what the president called “a thumping” in the midterms. But the pattern of those losses may ironically move the party even more to the right. Voters punished all manner of Republicans last week. In the Senate, for instance, conservatives like George Allen, Rick Santorum and Jim Talent were unseated, as was the moderate Mike Dewine and the moderate-to-liberal Lincoln Chaffee. But moderates were a distinct minority in both chambers before the election, and they lacked much if any clout, especially in the House. Now with their numbers even fewer, their voice within the caucus will be vanishingly small. “On a policy and political level, these results present a real challenge to the Republican Party,” wrote moderate Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.): “The majority of the American people are centrists — and our party lost many seats because the party was not in touch with what the American people care about.”
And what about the Democrats? Can they govern in a way that appeals to voters in the middle? True, the new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, represents liberal San Francisco, and many of the veteran lawmakers expected to assume chairmanships are old liberal lions, from Ted Kennedy in the Senate to John Conyers in the House.
But unlike the GOP, the Democratic Party has a hefty contingent of moderates, some of them in major leadership positions—think Rahm Emanuel and Steny Hoyer in the House, Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton in the Senate. Indeed, centrist former Clinton administration officials dominate the establishment political class in Washington---a source of continuing heartburn to more-progressive Democrats around the country.
The new class of freshmen Democrats will certainly be made up of quite a few liberal-progressives, like the economic populist Sherrod Brown of Ohio and former social worker Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire. But it will also include an array of moderate to conservative members, from Claire McCaskell of Missouri to former Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler of North Carolina. The tension between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party will be among the more interesting dramas to watch over the next two years.
But 12 years in the minority have made Democrats of all stripes less ideologically finicky, more pragmatic, hungrier to win. They know they have won only the temporary support of moderate America, that they have not yet closed the sale, and that they must if they want to keep their newfound power.
Republicans, on the other hand, are moving in the other direction. Like Bush this past summer, they are digging in, hugging the old certainties, refusing to even contemplate a more moderate course. The longer they remain in denial, the more the Democrats will have a chance to solidify their hold on the middle, where power resides.
[Note: A version of this article appeared in Sunday's San Jose Mercury News]
—Paul Glastris 10:07 PM
| Comments (11)