Whither the Republican Party?

By Bresler, Robert J. | USA TODAY, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Whither the Republican Party?


Bresler, Robert J., USA TODAY


REPUBLICANS ARE at their lowest point since the Watergate scandal of 35 years ago. It happened in a flash. Early in the presidential campaign, John McCain was running neck and neck with Barack Obama. Then, the financial roof fell in and collapsed on the Republican Party.

The first step in the recovery process is for the Republicans to learn the lessons of their successes and failures. With the exception of the moderate Clinton interlude, the Republicans, from 1980-2008, controlled the White House and had working majorities in Congress in most of those years. They also made a lion's share of the appointments to the Federal bench. It was period of historic transformation: victory in the Cold War and Gulf War, a 25-year economic boom, an information revolution, the resurgence of free-market ideas across the globe, a substantial reduction of Federal income tax rates, and the deregulation of many industries. The Republican era was not without its disappointments and failures: Social Security and Medicare spending remained uncontrolled; discretionary domestic spending continued to rise; and tax simplification and reform never moved past the commission stage. The biggest letdown came at the end of the era. The Bush Administration, discarding any fiscal restraint, intervened clumsily in the financial markets and the automobile industry and brought greater legitimacy to Pres. Obama's massive spending and interventionist policies.

Can the Republicans come back? The answer, of course, is yes. Parties have suffered losses that, at the time, seemed to put them on the verge of irrelevancy--the Republicans in 1964 and the Democrats in 1980--only to regain their former position of power. The real question for the Republicans is not will they come back, but when and how. Political parties can wander in the wilderness for some time. From the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, Republicans largely were out of power for 36 years, controlling the Congress only in 1947-48 and 1953-54 and the White House during the Eisenhower years, 1953-61. During that era, the conservative Republicans from the Midwest were the starchy party of big business, while the moderate Republicans of the Northeast were a tepid version of the New Deal/Great Society Democrats. Neither wing of the party had interesting alternatives to the march of the welfare state. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon won presidential elections in large party because of two protracted and unresolved wars under the Democrats (Korea and Vietnam), not because they had a compelling domestic vision. In fact, Eisenhower's Modern Republicanism was a less expensive version of the New Deal, and Nixon signed a raft of environmental and consumer legislation.

One lesson from these years remains valid. The Democrats are the party of government, ff that is what the people desire, they will mm to the Democrats. Republicans may win an occasional election, but will never build a majority being a sleeker, less expensive model. The initial popularity of the Obama Administration may tempt many Republicans be exactly that--another party of government. This, say some commentators, is the only way to win back the Northeast, younger voters, Hispanics, and women. …

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