"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times

1/18/2009

Three Faces of the Republican Party's Problem

Former Virginia congressman Tom Davis recently penned an excellent essay detailing Republicans' problems and how the party can get back on track. Coming from a Republican, his essay is well worth reading. But I think the Republican Party's problems can be summarized more succinctly by how three politicians embody them: Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin. Perhaps there are other politicians who capture the essence of Republicans' problems, but these three are the most obvious.

Ronald Reagan. The much revered Reagan is arguably the most successful, most influential, and most popular president over the last 50 years. He single-handedly ushered in a new political movement that redefined conservatism and laid the groundwork for today's Republican Party. He won both of his elections in landslides and left office with high approval ratings.

So why is Reagan a problem?

Because he left office 20 years ago. When Reagan handed over the White House to George H.W. Bush in 1989, voters born after about 1970 were college freshmen, teenagers, children, babies, embryos, or not yet conceived. In 2009, their connection to Ronald Reagan is either weak or nonexistent. They were too young to remember him or they simply weren't alive. To young voters, the face of the Republican Party is George W. Bush or his father, not Reagan. So talking about returning to Reagan's principles makes the GOP seem like it has no new ideas. Of course, Democrats had the same problem with their romanticizing of John F. Kennedy. However, Barack Obama was able to keep this nostalgia in check and make his presidential campaign about the future. If Republicans are unable to do the same, they will be locked out of power for a very long time. It is no coincidence that presidential exit polls revealed that Obama beat McCain by a 2 to 1 margin among 18-29 year olds.

Barack Obama. Aside from being the Democrat who vanquished their party's presidential nominee in 2008, Obama presents several other problems for Republicans. Shortly after Obama's victory, many people began parsing the exit polls and found that Blacks supported Obama by about 20 to 1. It did not take long before many Republicans complained that Blacks only voted for him because he was "Black." Even before the election, powerful conservative icons were criticizing the endorsements Obama received from other Blacks, such as Rush Limbaugh's criticism of Colin Powell.

However, these Republicans are missing the point. Al Gore won about 90% of the Black vote in 2000, and John Kerry won about as much in 2004. Instead of complaining that Blacks only supported Obama because he was Black, they should be studying the exit polls and wondering why only 1 out of 20 Blacks, 1 out of 3 Latinos, and 1 out of 3 people of other races voted Republican. What an indictment against the Republican Party! Worse yet for Republicans, this nonwhite portion of the electorate is growing. The point is not that so many people of color are voting for other people of color. The point is that so few people of color are voting for Republicans.

A second reason why Obama represents a problem for Republicans is because of his own political skills. In the post-election transition period, Obama has been able to neutralize several of his political rivals by co-opting their ideas or including them in his cabinet. For example, Obama's selection of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation has angered the left while pleasing the right. Keeping Robert Gates on board as the Secretary of Defense probably did not please liberals either. Who was supposed to be the "maverick" last year? Certainly not Obama. But he took McCain's message and neutralized it by making it his own. He did the same thing with asking Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State. Does anybody even know what PUMAs stand for anymore?

Of course, Obama has not assumed office yet. However, he has certainly built up a lot of goodwill. So how can Republicans attack him or position themselves? So far, Obama can credibly claim that he has been a "change" agent, a "maverick," and a genuine bipartisan. He now has a stranglehold on the left and the center and is even making inroads with the persuadable right. What's left? There just aren't enough votes on the far right to topple him. As long as Obama governs competently and effectively, he could easily dismiss Republicans' attacks as the politics of yesterday, and a lot of moderate and independent voters will probably agree. Making meaningful and significant overtures to voters early on who might not have been inclined to support him at first may pay great dividends later on.

Sarah Palin. The once obscure Alaska governor is now one of the most recognizable and most popular faces of the Republican Party. But is that a good thing? While she may be good for fundraising and keeping the party base happy, she may also be the best thing that has happened to Democrats.

In the weeks and months after the election, Palin has continued to make headlines, as she is still fighting the battles of yesterday. She is still complaining about her handlers during the campaign even though the campaign is over and most people have moved on. She is still attacking Katie Couric even though she's the one who couldn't give coherent answers to Couric's questions. She is still badmouthing the media even though she was a journalism major in college who should presumably understand how the media operate. She is complaining that she was the victim of sexism and classism as she compared media coverage of herself with that of Caroline Kennedy of New York even though a vice president requires a much more advanced skill set than a senator does.

It seems that every time Palin speaks, it's about her and not the voters. If Republicans continue to rally behind such a candidate, they will send a very clear message to people outside the GOP that she espouses what they value. Palin represents a certain level of ignorance that is both alarming and repulsive to her detractors. (Consider Palin protege Joe the War Correspondent, formerly known as Joe the Plumber, who says journalists should be "abolished" from reporting on war.) Conservative David Frum picked up on this and sounded a warning that should concern Palin and her supporters. Political analyst Charlie Cook has found that Democrats' fortunes improve as more and more people get bachelor's degrees. The anti-intellectualism that Palin seems to convey seems to be at odds with this change in demographics. Minority outreach problems aside, can Republicans really afford to be on the wrong side of this demographic change too?

In Sarah Palin's world, there are many mistakes. But the only person who should not take responsibility for these mistakes is Sarah Palin herself. How do Republicans square this with their mantra of "personal accountability?"

In short, I agree with Congressman Davis that Republicans need new ideas, new outreach efforts, and a renewed appreciation for knowledge. But in addition to this, they need new icons. Ronald Reagan alone will no longer suffice, and Sarah Palin is a terrible substitute.

11 comment(s):

S.W. Anderson said...

"Obama was able to keep this nostalgia in check and make his presidential campaign about the future. If Republicans are unable to do the same, they will be locked out of power for a very long time."

Good point, but keep another one in mind as well. They don't like to admit it, but a good many politically active Republicans know very well their ideology and positions on many issues are at odds with the thinking and preferences of most Americans. Polls consistently verify that. A big reason Reagan won big twice was because of looks, charm and charismatic personality. Even a good many people who weren't that thrilled with his politics just liked and admired Reagan.

It's hardly surprising that what most Republicans most want is another charming, charismatic Reagan type as a presidential candidate -- someone so compelling and attractive he (or she) makes people forget or ignore what Republican rule is like and what it leads to.


"The point is that so few people of color are voting for Republicans."

Ah, but if Republicans really court the black vote, they have to be assured of winning more black votes nationwide than the white votes they'll lose in the South as they abandon their Southern Strategy. Republicans would also have to seriously depart from their ideology and political positions they've held for generations. Things like an urban policy of benign neglect.


Re: Palin: "If Republicans continue to rally behind such a candidate, they will send a very clear message to people outside the GOP that she espouses what they value. Palin represents a certain level of ignorance that is both alarming and repulsive to her detractors."

Republicans like in Palin the same thing that bound them to George W. Bush. That perverse "attribute" is that the rest of us find Palin ill prepared, terribly lacking and completely unsuitable to lead the country. The more the rest of us find her unacceptable, the more a strong core of conservative Republicans like her and want to support her. At basis, it's a spite thing.

I agree Republicans need new icons and new leadership. Colin Powell was and remains their best bet. Trouble is, he's not a doctrinaire conservative, is a moderate consensus builder and isn't likely to sell out his good name and self-respect saying and doing anything to win an election. As for Powell being spite-job material, forget it.

DB said...

A lot of this really boils down to their mentality of exclusion. Reagan brings about the "real conservative" mantra, which only implies that you are a conservative or you are not. No one else welcome. Hence the term RINO.

Obama shows exactly what this exclusionary philosophy gives you...a strictly conservative, white, Southern, Christian Party. The Latinos moving into Florida, Texas, Arizona, and everywhere else in the Southwest will only make this practice hurt more. If Texas goes blue because of the Latino vote, the Republican Party may finally realize it has a problem.

Palin epitomizes this brand of conservative. Rush Limbaugh is convincing his followers that these exclusionary practices aren't why they lost, but because they weren't exclusionary enough! I see more and more of his and Hannity's influence each day and they simply do not get it and the more followers they get, the worse this problem will become for them.

Great post. It is right on target for the current state of the GOP.

Anthony Palmer said...

SWA,

Regarding the Democrats, liberals had to find a way to coexist with centrists. As for Republicans, the hardcore religious fundamentalists will have to find a way to coexist with the RINOs. When you apply so many litmus tests to members of your own party, it makes it very difficult for you to grow it. It seems that if you vote for any tax increase, equivocate on gay marriage, support modest gun control measures, or do not support a blanket ban on abortion, you are bludgeoned as a "liberal" or a RINO or some other political pejorative. Amazing.

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DB,

Hannity/Limbaugh/Coulter/et al. may be quite popular, but they also do a great disservice to the party by turning off the broader electorate who thinks they are blowhards. The vitriol they commonly spew is like catnip for their audience. "John Edwards is a faggot! Ayers is a Obama's terrorist friend!" It's juicy red meat indeed, but it distracts the GOP base from talking about meaningful solutions that can appeal to the middle 40-45% of the electorate. Of course, the left has its blowhards too, but they don't seem as influential as a Hannity or Limbaugh.

And finally, I must also apologize for not being able to update this blog as much as I used to. I have no intention of letting this blog die. But classes are much more difficult this semester, so I've had to put a lot of things on the backburner. But I do appreciate your loyalty and hope you'll continue to drop by and leave your thoughtful comments. I might not be able to reply to all of them individually, but I do read them all. And I appreciate them.

Novice said...

Thanx AP for all you do.

King Politics said...

Might also add that the GOP is bereft of ideas. Good ideas should transcend bad messengers. Clearly, Bush is a bad messenger, but if Americans really believed in conservatism they would still support conservative candidates. That they do not is as telling as anything they might think about Bush, Palin, Cheney, Rove, Limbaugh or any other conservative notable.

Chris McNeal said...

Mr. Palmer,

Great thoughts. I have a question for you that you might want to entertain. Given that America's winner-take-all system does not support third parties well, do you believe that as the Republican party declines (and I believe it will continue to do so), that it will be supplanted by another party? If so, what do you think will distinguish that party from the Republican party?

DB said...

I know you didn't ask me, but I thought I would give it a shot: the Republican Party isn't going anywhere. They will change before they die. No third party has the national infrastucture to compete at the level the GOP is still able to.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agree with that. This election represents a shift in ideology, but I really doubt it is anywhere massive enough to completely destroy the Republican party. The more relaistic question here I think is "How will the Republican party change?"

Palmer- About the Ronald Reagan thing, isn't looking back with nastalgia one of the fundamental principles of conservatism- the notion that society and government is headed the wrong way, and we need to return to the values and the governing of 'the good ol' days?'

-miniman

Chris McNeal said...

DB: I would challenge that assertion on the ground that the current Republican establishment is not very inclined towards changing. What I see is one of two possibilities: More and more conservatives become independents but a rigid core of non-changers remains. As Republican resources deplete, the large group of independents slowly but surely join a rising third party which eventually overtakes the Republican Party.

The second possibility falls in line with the general trend of the declining power of the American political party. The Republican PArty continues but in name only as parties really don't do much these days and nobody really cares to overtake it because nobody cares about parties. I think this is a more likely reason for the Republican Party not being overtaken.

Anonymous said...

The Republican party doesn't have to change that much tho. Thats what I've been trying to say- conservatism still appeals to a great number of people, even if they lost the last few elections. Should Obama's big plans of radical change and increased government fail, then it is almost certain that the conservatives (under the Republcian banner) will make as many gains in government as they have just lost.

At the very least, the Republican party exists as the alternative to the Democrats- a role that almost every party has taken on at some point in our nation's history.

-miniman

Anthony Palmer said...

Chris McNeal,

If a new political party is to form, it would be a coalition of Blue Dog Democrats (conservative Democrats) and moderate Republicans. The Republican Party is not large enough anymore to accommodate both the religious right and social moderates. These social moderates have made their home (tepidly) with the Dems, but if there is a viable political alliance, I'd expect this new party to be the most successful third party in decades. If the RNC chooses someone like Katon Dawson or that "Barack the Magic Negro" guy from Tennessee (Mike Duncan?), look for this crackup to happen within 5 years.

Thanks for the comment.

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Novice,

Thank you! And keep dropping by!

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King,

Have you ever noticed that when Democrats fail, it's because liberalism is a terrible philosophy, while when Republicans fail, it's because the politician failed and the ideology didn't? People say "Bush wasn't a true conservative" or that "Congressional Republicans weren't true conservatives." Well, why do these frauds keep getting elected? And whatever happened to personal accountability?

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Miniman,

I do agree that the GOP can't simply fold, otherwise, the Dems wouldn't be held in check by anything. However, they do need to find a way to make their party a comfortable home for a broader spectrum of voters because rural America is not large enough anymore to offset the new America.

Thank you all for the comments!

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