In the wake of sweeping Republican losses on November 4, we are seeing the GOP fracture into two wings. The first wing is the traditional, intellectual wing, as personified by George Will. This is the low taxes, small government, muscular foreign policy wing. The second wing is the Main Street, rail against the elites wing, as personified by Sarah Palin. This is the social conservative, religious right, law and order wing. These two wings always had a tenuous coexistence in the party, with the intellectual wing using wedge social issues to get the Main Street wing riled up, and then screwing them economically. The intellectuals provided the money and ideas while Main Street provided the votes.
This tenuous coexistence, however, has now turned into open hostility, with each side blaming the other for McCain’s loss. And as the GOP tries to figure out what it really is, and how to avoid a third consecutive stomping in 2010, these two wings are fighting for dominance. Unfortunately for the future of the Republican Party, the two wings can’t reconcile, and neither wing can win an election on its own. After all, even with the wings combined, they just got smoked by Barack Obama’s politics of hope. On their own, they are doomed.
The intellectual wing itself has two components – the rabid neocons and tax cutters versus the more moderate Rockefeller Republicans – but they both share a commitment to lowering taxes and shrinking government. They also share a slavish devotion to President Reagan. McCain, despite his campaign rhetoric in 2008, is part of this wing. As Joe Klein from Time described him:
He believed in the unilateral exercise of American power overseas, with an emphasis on military might rather than diplomacy. He believed in trickle-down, supply-side, deregulatory economics: his tax plan benefited corporations and the wealthy, in the hopes that with fewer shackles, they would create more jobs.
But widening income disparity and the financial crisis of 2008 have fundamentally discredited that economic approach. Reaganism failed. And while the Rockefeller Republicans might be able to craft a workable economic theory, they are so marginalized in the party that they can’t ever win. Moreover, there simply aren’t enough Americans driven by desire for lower taxes to support this wing of the party. There are too many citizens who actually want their government to provide something.
The Main Street wing of the GOP is the part that believes there is a “real America,” as opposed to the liberal “fake America.” It’s anti-elite, anti-intellectual and anti-media. Which is its main problem: it’s against everything and for nothing. It is fueled purely by anger and self-pity. This is unsustainable; without new ideas, this wing will wither and die. It will be consumed by a black tumor of hate, like Lee Atwater‘s brain.
Also, much like the intellectual wing, the Main Street wing isn’t large enough to win on its own. There aren’t enough voters who buy into its false dichotomy. This wing, however, has a chance. If it were to embrace a truly populist economic strategy, it might be able to peel off enough blue collar Democrats to build a winning coalition. Even the Wall Street Journal notes that “new Republican voices are popping up to argue that the importance of working-class voters means the party needs to develop economic policies more obviously directed toward the working class than the capitalist class.” But that would require a complete reworking of Republican economics: supporting unions and trade protection at the expense of corporate interests and wealthy individuals. It would require an approach that sounds strikingly similar to….the Democrats.
This is the problem facing GOP strategists as they figure out what to do. They want to chase the voters, but that will require moving away from their core philosophy, because that’s what the voters are doing. As Politico put it, the GOP is “a party that is overwhelmingly white, rural and aged in a country that is rapidly becoming racially mixed, suburban and dominated by a post-Baby Boomer generation.” Some strategists want to pursue growing demographics, namely black and Hispanic voters. But how do you do that when your two wings cater to wealthy WASPS and white rednecks, respectively? Both wings of the GOP have painted themselves into electoral corners, and there is no obvious way out.
Perhaps the recent election marked the generational shift that we all knew was coming. For the past 20 years government has catered to, and been run by, people of our parents’ generation – those who grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s – often leaving those of us from later decades mystified at the decisions being made. And we kept wondering, as old fogeys (Ted Stevens!) retired or died, and young folk grew old enough to vote, when our generation would start making decisions. Nobody WE knew hated blacks, or thought that poor people should be abandoned, so why was government pursuing such crappy policies? Why was the GOP so out of touch with our generation? After all, when you belong to a generation where a third of you have tattoos, it’s hard to see how branding a black candidate as “Muslim” is going to work. And it didn’t: Obama won, while conservative congressional candidates lost.
The GOP isn’t dead; its basic message of small government and individual liberty will always resonate. But it needs to do a lot of work to retool that message into a governing philosophy that will appeal to the new generation.