There is something degrading going on in the national Republican Party as it prepares to contest the 2008 presidential, congressional and state elections. The Republican Party has won the presidency eight of the 14 elections since World War II, but during most of those administrations, the executive branch had to form a partnership with a Congress in which one or both houses were controlled by Democrats. Only Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" brought the Republicans back to power in the House in 1994, and only President Bush from 2001-2007 was able to govern with the entire Congress, and with the majority of state governorships, under Republican control.
In the wake of the Democratic victories in 2006, Republicans have reacted traditionally by going back to their party base for rejuvenation. Unfortunately, this reaction is precisely what is likely to ensure their continued disappointment at the polls, and their resumed role as a minority party.
Not that the Democrats, now back in power in Congress, are doing a very good job themselves. Ignoring their successes in winning the presidency in 1992 and 1996 with a centrist leader, and by 1995, a centrist agenda, they have since leaned back to the party-base left wing. Democrats have repeatedly rebuffed the centrist domestic agenda that would increase and perpetuate their majorities. They have further stymied themselves by choosing inept congressional leaders. A Republican, Mr. Bush has continued to be unsuccessful in capitalizing on the early military successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and popular support for him has plummeted. The national Democratic leadership has recently fumbled the ball in the political red zone time and again. The 2008 presidential election should not be in doubt, even now, 14 months from election day. But it is in doubt.
On the other hand, just as the Republican Party has seemed to come up with a governing strategy and perhaps a winning candidate (or candidates) for 2008, the party base is acting like lemmings going over the political ledge.
The recent immigration debate is emblematic of this disaster, but the extent of the problem is not limited to it. Social conservatives, sensing that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani might actually win the Republican nomination, have desperately met and declared that they will walk out on the Republican Party if it nominates him or someone like him (e.g. John McCain, Mitt Romney, or possibly, Fred Thompson).
This is ludicrous on its face, since all of these candidates, regardless of their personal views, have pledged to nominate conservative judges to the federal bench and Supreme Court (the only places where a president has any real influence on social policy). All of the major or so-called first-tier Republican candidates are economic conservatives, and each of them is likely to reverse the ambivalent economic spending policies of the Bush administration, a legitimate grievance the party base does have.
The alternative, in real terms, is unthinkable in its consequences for conservatives, i.e., a generation or more of unrelenting tax-and-spend economic policies, an increase of abortion-on-demand, unending interventionist liberal federal courts and a foreign policy that caves into international public opinion and weakens our military defense and national security.
If that is what the majority of voters in the nation want, of course, that is what they should have.
But if part of the conservative base of the Republican Party walks out on its candidates, popularly chosen, it will lead to an electoral rout without precedent and deprive most American conservatives of the ability to affect American policies, possibly for decades.
James Dobson and his colleagues speak of principles over power. As I have pointed out, this is exactly wrong. Any of the major GOP presidential candidates will deliver a conservative program. It won't be pure. But never in the history of democratic republics has any administration acted with "pure" conservatism or "pure" liberalism. Those who wish for purity are really yearning for a totalitarian state.
The same is true on the Democratic side. Antiwar zealots who hate Mr. Bush want their candidates to demand immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and surrender American sovereignty to organizations such as the (failed) United Nations. They want "pure" left anti-corporate government with high taxes, single-payer universal health insurance (and no way to pay for it), and a rejection of free international trade. Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and Gov. Bill Richardson don't favor such extreme "pure" views. Yes, their views are considerably more liberal than their Republican counterparts, but the proper place to make workable policy choices is in a national election, not from the political blackmail by each party's extreme wing.
Republicans have been indulging themselves in abstractions on the immigration issue, turning away a growing and important Hispanic electorate that had been increasingly voting its way in the last two presidential elections. Republican statesmen such as Mr. Gingrich have come up with reasonable plans that eschewed deportation and negative stereotypes. But these plans are ignored, and anti-Hispanic sentiments are fanned into hysteria. Hispanic Americans do not fail to get the point. They will vote for Democrats.
Political parties which chronically fail to assemble majorities eventually disappear. Have you spoken with a Whig lately?
Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.