Groundhog Day

The GOP’s future looks a lot like the Democratic Party’s past—the question is, which past?

Illustration by Ben Gibson

One of the more pressing questions facing today’s staggering, flailing Republican Party, oddly enough, is which Democratic Party it most resembles: the party of 2004 or the party of 1980? For a GOP torn between retrenchment and renewal, between trying to hold the Reagan coalition together and blowing it up and starting over, the answer makes all the difference in the world.

The Democrats of 2004 were mired in gloom, convinced that the GOP of Karl Rove and George W. Bush had a lock on the hearts and minds of Middle America. But the party’s fundamentals weren’t nearly as bad as the doomsayers thought: the Democrats had lost two presidential elections (one of them against an incumbent in wartime) by whisker-thin margins, and the demographic trends that had led John Judis and Ruy Teixeira to proclaim an “emerging Democratic majority” were still moving in their favor. They were well-positioned, in other words, to capitalize on George W. Bush’s disastrous second term—and capitalize they have.

The Democrats of 1980, on the other hand, turned out to be much worse off than they looked on paper after Ronald Reagan’s landslide win. Reagan had triumphed amid stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis, and his victory could have been read as a fluke rather than a realigning triumph—a win that had more to do with the unpopularity of Jimmy Carter than with deeper weaknesses in the liberal brand. The Democrats still enjoyed a 50-seat edge in the House of Representatives, and they had lost presidential races before—to Eisenhower, to Nixon—without forfeiting their position as America’s natural majority. But ’80 was different: although the Democrats would rebound from their defeat, the political and policy initiative had passed from liberalism to conservatism, where it would remain for the better part of two decades.

What does this history lesson mean for today’s GOP? If 2008 finds the Republicans where their Democratic rivals stood four years ago, then their challenge is tactical: they need smarter strategists and more-effective messaging; better online fund-raising and fewer inside-the-Beltway scandals—and maybe improved recruitment as well, to put forward a slate of candidates who don’t look as if they should be populating a segregated Elks Club circa 1957. And they need an infusion of nerve and principle, to remind the party’s base why they vote Republican and to give swing voters a reason to throw their lot in again with the GOP.

If, on the other hand, the Republicans are experiencing their own 1980—with Barack Obama playing the role of liberalism’s Reagan—then the GOP will need something more to hack its way out of the wilderness where George W.Bush has left his party. The Democrats of ’80 needed better ideas, not better messaging and candidates; they needed to redefine their party, not just rebrand it. It has been a long, hard road from Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale to the confident, cash-rich Democratic Party of today. If 2008 is the GOP’s 1980, then a similar period of soul-searching and internecine struggle awaits Republicans—and the sooner they get started, the better.

In this year’s GOP primary, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson were the 2004 candidates, each competing to pass every litmus test and check every ideological box, and selling himself as the best tribune for the conservative consensus that has held since Ronald Reagan. By contrast, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani were the 1980 candidates, running campaigns that questioned GOP orthodoxy and tried to chart new directions. Huckabee promised to make the GOP more populist, wedding staunch social conservatism to economic rhetoric that echoed that of William Jennings Bryan (or perhaps John Edwards), while Giuliani offered more or less the reverse approach, proposing that Republicans reinvent themselves as a party for tax cutters and foreign-policy hawks, with the religious right pushed to the sidelines.

As for John McCain—well, McCain fell somewhere in between the 2004 and the 1980 approaches. His reformist record and maverick reputation seemed tailor-made for a party facing a 1980-style crisis, and his status as a “different kind of Republican” (and therefore the only sort who could plausibly win in November) no doubt shaped his eventual victory. Yet on an issue-by-issue basis, he actually ran a cautious, box-checking primary race, making nice with interest groups that had been enemies and campaigning in a fashion suited to a party in need of rebranding rather than rebirth.

This approach has carried over to the general election, where his campaign can look innovative or deeply conventional, depending on which day it is and which issue he’s addressing. This straddle may win him the White House. But if he loses, the approach he has taken will offer fodder for both interpretations of the GOP’s current plight. Advocates of retrenchment will argue that McCain’s heterodoxies cost him the loyalty of the base and thus the presidency, while advocates of renovation and reform will argue that he hewed too closely to party orthodoxy to win over independent voters. And the question of whether the GOP is stuck in the Democrats’ 2004 or in their 1980 will be left unresolved—that is, at least until 2012 rolls round.