Big picture, May 2008:
The Democrats aren’t the ones falling apart, the Republicans are. The Democrats can see daylight ahead. For all their fractious fighting, they’re finally resolving their central drama. Hillary Clinton will leave, and Barack Obama will deliver a stirring acceptance speech. Then hand-to-hand in the general, where they see their guy triumphing. You see it when you talk to them: They’re busy being born.
The Republicans? Busy dying. The brightest of them see no immediate light. They’re frozen, not like a deer in the headlights but a deer in the darkness, his ears stiff at the sound. Crunch. Twig. Hunting party.
The headline Wednesday on Drudge, from Politico, said, “Republicans Stunned by Loss in Mississippi.” It was about the eight-point drubbing the Democrat gave the Republican in the special House election. My first thought was: You have to be stupid to be stunned by that. Second thought: Most party leaders in Washington are stupid—detached, played out, stuck in the wisdom they learned when they were coming up, in ‘78 or ‘82 or ‘94. Whatever they learned then, they think pertains now. In politics especially, the first lesson sticks. For Richard Nixon, everything came back to Alger Hiss.
They are also—Hill leaders, lobbyists, party speakers—successful, well-connected, busy and rich. They never guessed, back in ‘86, how government would pay off! They didn’t know they’d stay! They came to make a difference and wound up with their butts in the butter. But affluence detaches, and in time skews thinking. It gives you the illusion you’re safe, and that everyone else is. A party can lose its gut this way.
Many are ambivalent, deep inside, about the decisions made the past seven years in the White House. But they’ve publicly supported it so long they think they . . . support it. They get confused. Late at night they toss and turn in the antique mahogany sleigh bed in the carpeted house in McLean and try to remember what it is they really do think, and what those thoughts imply.
And those are the bright ones. The rest are in Perpetual 1980: We have the country, the troops will rally in the fall.
“This was a real wakeup call for us,” someone named Robert M. Duncan, who is chairman of the Republican National Committee, told the New York Times. This was after Mississippi. “We can’t let the Democrats take our issues.” And those issues would be? “We can’t let them pretend to be conservatives,” he continued. Why not? Republicans pretend to be conservative every day.
The Bush White House, faced with the series of losses from 2005 through ‘08, has long claimed the problem is Republicans on the Hill and running for office. They have scandals, bad personalities, don’t stand for anything. That’s why Republicans are losing: because they’re losers.
All true enough!
But this week a House Republican said publicly what many say privately, that there is another truth. “Members and pundits . . . fail to understand the deep seated antipathy toward the president, the war, gas prices, the economy, foreclosures,” said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia in a 20-page memo to House GOP leaders.
The party, Mr. Davis told me, is “an airplane flying right into a mountain.” Analyses of its predicament reflect an “investment in the Bush presidency,” but “the public has just moved so far past that.” “Our leaders go up to the second floor of the White House and they get a case of White House-itis.” Mr. Bush has left the party at a disadvantage in terms of communications: “He can’t articulate. The only asset we have now is the big microphone, and he swallowed it.” The party, said Mr. Davis, must admit its predicament, act independently of the White House, and force Democrats to define themselves. “They should have some ownership for what’s going on. They control the budget. They pay no price. . . . Obama has all happy talk, but it’s from 30,000 feet. Energy, immigration, what is he gonna do?”
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Could the party pivot from the president? I spoke this week to Clarke Reed of Mississippi, one of the great architects of resurgent Republicanism in the South. When he started out, in the 1950s, there were no Republicans in his state. The solid south was solidly Democratic, and Sen. James O. Eastland was thumping the breast pocket of his suit, vowing that civil rights legislation would never leave it. “We’re going to build a two-party system in the south,” Mr. Reed said. He helped create “the illusion of Southern power” as a friend put it, with the creation of the Southern Republican Chairman’s Association. “If you build it they will come.” They did.
There are always “lots of excuses,” Mr. Reed said of the special-election loss. Poor candidate, local factors. “Having said all that,” he continued, “let’s just face it: It’s not a good time.” He meant to be a Republican. “They brought Cheney in, and that was a mistake.” He cited “a disenchantment with the generic Republican label, which we always thought was the Good Housekeeping seal.”
What’s behind it? “American people just won’t take a long war. Just—name me a war, even in a pro-military state like this. It’s overall disappointment. It’s national. No leadership, adrift. Things haven’t worked.” The future lies in rebuilding locally, not being “distracted” by Washington.
Is the Republican solid South over?
“Yeah. Oh yeah.” He said, “I eat lunch every day at Buck’s Cafe. Obama’s picture is all over the wall.”
How to come back? “The basic old conservative principles haven’t changed. We got distracted by Washington, we got distracted from having good county organizations.”
Should the party attempt to break with Mr. Bush? Mr. Reed said he supports the president. And then he said, simply, “We’re past that.”
We’re past that time.
Mr. Reed said he was “short-term pessimistic, long-term optimistic.” He has seen a lot of history. “After Goldwater in ‘64 we said, ‘Let’s get practical.’ So we got ol’ Dick. We got through Watergate. Been through a lot. We’ve had success a long time.”
Throughout the interview this was a Reed refrain: “We got through that.” We got through Watergate and Vietnam and changes large and small.
He was holding high the flag, but his refrain implicitly compared the current moment to disaster.
What happens to the Republicans in 2008 will likely be dictated by what didn’t happen in 2005, and ‘06, and ‘07. The moment when the party could have broken, on principle, with the administration—over the thinking behind and the carrying out of the war, over immigration, spending and the size of government—has passed. What two years ago would have been honorable and wise will now look craven. They’re stuck.
Mr. Bush has squandered the hard-built paternity of 40 years. But so has the party, and so have its leaders. If they had pushed away for serious reasons, they could have separated the party’s fortunes from the president’s. This would have left a painfully broken party, but they wouldn’t be left with a ruined “brand,” as they all say, speaking the language of marketing. And they speak that language because they are marketers, not thinkers. Not serious about policy. Not serious about ideas. And not serious about leadership, only followership.
This is and will be the great challenge for John McCain: The Democratic argument, now being market tested by Obama Inc., that a McCain victory will yield nothing more or less than George Bush’s third term.
That is going to be powerful, and it is going to get out the vote. And not for Republicans.