Time for a Bull Moose: The Risk of Generational Realignment and a Path toward a "New Republican" Party

By Rudolph, Josh | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Time for a Bull Moose: The Risk of Generational Realignment and a Path toward a "New Republican" Party


Rudolph, Josh, Kennedy School Review


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Republican President Theodore Roosevelt was once shot in the chest as he stood up to give a speech. After the assailant was immediately apprehended, the bleeding but unshaken president shuffled back over to the podium and said, "It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose." He then proceeded to deliver his speech.

Today's Republican Party has been on the defensive ever since its humiliating defeat in the 2012 election. Party leadership conceded to tax hikes on the wealthy, asked for almost nothing in return for shelving the debt ceiling debate, and now are contemplating immigration reform and gun control.

If this recent move toward the center ends up being a permanently "new GOP (Grand Old Party)," that would be good for the country and good for the party. With former President Ronald Reagan's legacy failing to resonate with an increasingly minority and millennial electorate, the Republicans are struggling to win over a second generation in a row. Repairing the party's stodgy reputation will require going in the offensive in a way that resonates with young voters.

Just over a century ago, under similar circumstances, an earlier version of the Republican Party did successfully win the adoration of two back-to-back generations of American voters. In 1901, partisan gridlock reigned supreme while the aging generation of Lincoln Republicans struggled to excite the new electorate. That was when the youngest president in our nation's history, Teddy Roosevelt, ascended to the presidency and remolded the political landscape.

In order to enjoy similar success, today's "New Republican" Party will need to be represented by proud and loud Bull Moose personalities who are delivering a centrist policy platform that resonates with an electorate that is moving decidedly away from the GOP. Without a formidable offensive, the party risks falling out of favor with the largest generation in American history and spending thirty to forty years on the political sidelines.

Models of American Political Cycles

In order to estimate the odds of the Republicans being relegated to minority status for an extended period, we must begin by reviewing what leading social scientists have to say about how American political cycles work.

There are two dominant theories. The first, pioneered by historian Arthur Schlesinger, suggests that every fifteen years or so (round trip of thirty years or roughly one generation), the American political pendulum swings from the liberal ambitions of public purpose to the conservative retreats of private interest (or vice versa). Some GOP optimists observe that the Democrats have now won five of the past six presidential popular votes in the twenty years since 1992, and thus the Republicans are five years overdue for dominance.

But the four terms in the middle of this period--the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush--were one of the longest expansions of private enterprise in American history. Moreover, a closer reading of Schlesinger reveals that the liberal institution-building phase tends to follow a society rattling shock, such as the financial crisis in 2008. And even before this recent shock, toward the end of the Bush presidency, the electorate was "ready for change" away from the Republicans, the hallmark sentiment of the Schlesinger cycle.

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Therefore, it is more likely that the shift toward liberal government only began in 2008, and the Schlesinger theory is more likely to suggest continued liberal dominance for at least the next two elections (2016 and 2020).

But the other dominant cyclical interpretation of American political history--the theory of generational party alignment--may paint an even starker future for the Republicans. And unfortunately for the GOP, both exit poll results and demographic data lend more support to this longer-term interpretation of the political cycle. …

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Time for a Bull Moose: The Risk of Generational Realignment and a Path toward a "New Republican" Party
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