The GOP's Suicidal Tendencies

The articles on the state of the Republican party by John Heilemann and Jonathan Chait in the current New York magazine are both really good, I think. Heilemann marvels at the suicidal tendencies expressed in the current primary contest.

That Mitt Romney finds himself so imperiled by Rick Santorum--Rick Santorum!--is just the latest in a series of jaw-dropping developments in what has been the most volatile, unpredictable, and just plain wackadoodle Republican-nomination contest ever. Part of the explanation lies in Romney's lameness as a candidate, in Santorum's strength, and in the sudden efflorescence of social issues in what was supposed to be an all-economy-all-the-time affair. But even more important have been the seismic changes within the Republican Party. "Compared to 2008, all the candidates are way to the right of John McCain," says longtime conservative activist Jeff Bell. "The fact that Romney is running with basically the same views as then but is seen as too moderate tells you that the base has moved rightward and doesn't simply want a conservative candidate--it wants a very conservative one."

Much of Chait's analysis is broadly compatible with Heilemann's primary play-by-play, though he puts far greater emphasis on the view that the GOP faces demographic extinction. So much emphasis that every turn of events--including the party's victory in 2010--has to conform to it.

Grim though the long-term demography may be, it became apparent to Republicans almost immediately after Obama took office that political fate had handed them an impossibly lucky opportunity. Democrats had come to power almost concurrently with the deepest economic crisis in 80 years, and Republicans quickly seized the tactical advantage, in an effort to leverage the crisis to rewrite their own political fortunes. The Lesser Depression could be an economic Watergate, the Republicans understood, an exogenous political shock that would, at least temporarily, overwhelm any deeper trend, and possibly afford the party a chance to permanently associate the Democrats with the painful aftermath of the crisis.

During the last midterm elections, the strategy succeeded brilliantly. Republicans moved further right and won a gigantic victory. In the 2010 electorate, the proportion of voters under 30 fell by roughly a third, while the proportion of voters over 65 years old rose by a similar amount--the white share, too. In the long run, though, the GOP has done nothing at all to rehabilitate its deep unpopularity with the public as a whole, and has only further poisoned its standing with Hispanics. But by forswearing compromise, it opened the door to a single shot. The Republicans have gained the House and stand poised to win control of the Senate. If they can claw out a presidential win and hold on to Congress, they will have a glorious two-year window to restore the America they knew and loved, to lock in transformational change, or at least to wrench the status quo so far rightward that it will take Democrats a generation to wrench it back. The cost of any foregone legislative compromises on health care or the deficit would be trivial compared to the enormous gains available to a party in control of all three federal branches.

On the other hand, if they lose their bid to unseat Obama, they will have mortgaged their future for nothing at all. And over the last several months, it has appeared increasingly likely that the party's great all-or-nothing bet may land, ultimately, on nothing. In which case, the Republicans will have turned an unfavorable outlook into a truly bleak one in a fit of panic. The deepest effect of Obama's election upon the Republicans' psyche has been to make them truly fear, for the first time since before Ronald Reagan, that the future is against them.

Interesting--not that I go along with all this. I think 2010 was a much bigger setback for the demographic determinists than Chait allows. It's also hard to believe that the party has pivoted from ingenious tactical calculation in 2010 to blind panic just two years later, when not much has changed except for its winning control of the House. I don't think they were all that brilliant in 2010 and I don't see much sign of panic today. Those contradictory theories do have one thing in common, though: that the GOP understands the predicament Chait says it faces. I don't see that either. The GOP's problem is pathological complacency, not fear. The party should be much more afraid (though not mainly for demographic reasons) than it appears to be.