Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Party of Tomorrow

One of the trends becoming increasingly evident in modern political times -- perpetuated by Karl Rove and President Bush and embraced recently by John McCain and Sarah Palin -- is the Republican Party’s odd reliance on an electoral strategy that cedes the middle ground and focusing squarely and solely on its base. In that desperate attempt to appeal to those on the far right of the political spectrum, it has used fear tactics and the politics of personal destruction to cast Democratic opponents as nothing more than untrustworthy, soft, and unpatriotic – true threats to everything that a church-going, white, heterosexual living in a pro-America town would hold dear.

Shockingly (or not so much), all Republicans have to show for their efforts is more division, more resentment, more hostility, more ignorance and fewer Republicans. You reap what you sow. Indeed, it’s surprising that the Republicans failed to adopt the Obama strategy of playing down partisanship, building bridges and appealing to the best in us, and it’s humorous how they grew increasingly cynical about its ultimate effectiveness. You would think they’d learn from the lessons of recent history -- electoral landslides, a diminishing base, ceding ground to younger voters, no true standard-bearer, etc -- but no, the race for the next Chairman of the Republican National Committee has exposed nothing but more of the same. E.J. Dionne elaborates:

The message sent over the weekend may have been unintentional, but it was nonetheless powerful. While the candidates to chair the Republican National Committee prepared for a debate held yesterday by the Reagan-era group Americans for Tax Reform, the Democrats leaked word that their next national chairman would be Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia. The message: While Republicans are looking inward and focusing on appeals to the party's activist base, President-elect Barack Obama wants Democrats to concentrate their energies on recently acquired political terrain and the new converts who were central to his party's sweep last year.

…A top Obama adviser, using trademark Obama language, described Kaine as "a pragmatic progressive, less concerned about orthodoxies than about getting things done." In fact, Obama is already following the path blazed in Virginia by Kaine and his predecessor, incoming Sen. Mark Warner. Their approach was to pursue broadly progressive policies in a non-ideological way and to speak of playing down partisanship -- even as doing so was their way of building the Democratic Party's brand and broadening its base of support.

…By contrast, Republicans seem less focused on how to expand their party's appeal than on hunkering down to preserve ideological purity. For now, the underdogs in the chairmanship fight seem to be the two candidates outside the party's regional and ideological comfort zones, former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele and Michigan state Chairman Saul Anuzis. They confront two Southerners, Chip Saltsman of Tennessee, now most noted for distributing the CD that included the song "Barack the Magic Negro," and Katon Dawson, the South Carolina party chairman. The incumbent, Mike Duncan of Kentucky, is seeking reelection, while former Ohio secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell has emerged as the candidate of the conservative stalwarts.

Structurally, it turns out to be much easier for Democrats than Republicans to reach out to moderates because Democrats are the more ideologically diverse party… Thus, when Democrats try to broaden their appeal, they are also addressing middle-of-the-road voters in their own party. Republicans who want to reach out have to fight their party, which is overwhelmingly inclined to stick with the true conservative faith.

Republicans would do well to pay attention to another trend: The young are leaning left. Voters under 30, according to the exit poll, are the only age group in which liberals outnumber conservatives, by 32 percent to 26 percent. And the last four years of the Bush presidency clearly turned this generation off to the GOP. In 2004, 18- to 29-year-olds tilted only narrowly Democratic, 37 percent to 35 percent. In 2008, 45 percent of the under-30s called themselves Democrat; only 26 percent called themselves Republican.

Right-wing loyalists can talk all they want about how President Bush's problem was that he wasn't "conservative enough," but the numbers show they are misunderstanding their party's problem. Obama and Kaine are appealing to a moderate country moving gradually in a progressive direction and have a party behind them prepared to grapple with the realities of politics now. Whoever takes the helm of the GOP will have to persuade a very conservative following that we are not living in Ronald Reagan's America anymore.


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