There are two points at which a political party or an ideological faction can find its voice and begin to claim power. One, of course, is when it is at the height of confidence and electoral success, like Ronald Reagan's conservatives in 1981. The other is when it has hit bottom, when there's nothing more to lose, no constituencies to feed, no illusion that anything in the current strategy is working, no excuse for caution.
The Republican Party today is certainly not in the first position. But, with party identification favoring Democrats by the widest margin in 16 years, and Republicans losing even the battle for campaign money, the party may be close to the second. Parties in nonparliamentary, winner-take-all systems don't disappear. The recent resurgence of the British Conservative Party is a reminder that even after a decade of futility, a new leader, a vision, and impatience with the incumbent party can turn things around quickly. But for now, with Republican state parties in shambles, with no chance of reclaiming a congressional majority any time soon, and suffering, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned, "a catastrophic collapse of trust," the GOP could he hitting that bottom, and grabbing desperately onto a frayed lifeline--the identity politics of American-ness--in a last bid for survival.
To appreciate the value of hitting bottom, consider what happened to the Democratic Party and liberalism. All through the Reagan and first Bush eras, and again in the Clinton years, Democrats always had something. The institutional heart of the party was in the House of Representatives, and during the Reagan era, the complacent assumption that "we'll always have the House" meant that many important Democratic figures didn't feel they had much stake in whether Michael Dukakis won the presidency or President Clinton succeeded. After the Gingrich takeover of Congress in 1994, the Democratic Party's purpose became identified with the personal survival and renewal of the Clinton presidency. Only after 2002, when the Democrats finally lost everything, when they reached the political equivalent of living in their car, did the path to renewal begin. Accelerated by the disaster of the war and awareness of their own complicity in it, enraged by the media and energized by new voices such as the "netroots" bloggers and the stellar candidates of 2006 and 2008, the Democrats proved that a party, and even its liberal wing, can turn things around almost completely in just four or six years.
The Republican Party, though, has always had a different attitude about risk, almost courting disaster while the Democrats postponed it. In Building Red America, his slightly belated 2006 opus on the Republican plan for permanent power, Thomas B. Edsall points to studies showing that core Republicans are "confident risk-takers"--white men with a very high tolerance for hazard. But as Edsall notes, they are so confident because they have been generally insulated from the consequences of their risk-taking--think of George W. Bush's career as an oil man, or of Bear Stearns, or of the quasi-celebrities whose messes are discreetly taken care off And while conservative pundits and some of their politicians are in a state of panic, political strategists like Karl Rove carry themselves with the confident swagger of an investment banker who just lost $2 billion of someone else's money but still has the Fifth Avenue apartment and the house in Bedford. Rove's scheme to establish a 30-year reign of absolute Republican power increasingly looks like yet another gamble of the bubble economy, like a hedge-fund scheme that couldn't fail until it failed.
Whether it has a secret Swiss bank account of political capital or not, the Republican Party is not going away, and conservative ideas, despite their failure in practice, probably still have a hold on the American instinct. A fully ruined Republican Party could be as dangerous and consequential as one holding on to some scraps of power. …