By Eugene Robinson
I could make the argument that all is not lost for the Republican Party—that last Tuesday’s across-the-board defeat wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. But it would be a pretty dumb argument, and I doubt many readers would take it seriously. The truth is that the Grand Old Party is on a Bridge to Nowhere and may have great difficulty changing course.
The essential problem is that changing course will require turning around and marching, if not sprinting, in the opposite direction. At least initially, this doesn’t look like something enough Republicans are willing to do.
What we’re hearing instead from Republican politicians, pollsters and pundits is reassurance that the United States is a “center-right nation” with an innate distrust of progressive policies. The problem, these soothing voices say, is that under George W. Bush the GOP strayed from its basic philosophy of limited government and adopted the big-spending habits of the Democrats. Republicans need to rediscover their bedrock principles, this theory goes, and after a few years of rule by Barack Obama and his Democratic enablers on Capitol Hill, voters will come running home to Papa.
So much is wrong with this analysis that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the basic premise, that of a center-right American polity. To the extent that such a vague label has any real meaning, that may once have been the case. But if ours were a center-right electorate now, one imagines it might have been kinder to a center-right politician such as John McCain.
After all, that’s what McCain basically is, or used to be. To win the Republican nomination, he had to swerve so far to the right that there was no way he could make his way back within shouting distance of the center. Not that he tried very hard: By the end of the campaign, he was suggesting that progressive taxation—a concept that most Americans accept, having been convinced of its wisdom by Republican icon Teddy Roosevelt—represents some sort of creeping socialism.
My guess, in any event, is that this country oscillates pretty freely in the range between center-right and center-left, and that at present it’s clearly taking a leftward swing. My guess is that in stimulating the economy, re-regulating the financial system, making “green” technology a reality and ending the war in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Obama will feel more public pressure to speed up than slow down.
Big-spending, pork-loving Republicans in Congress who suddenly recall that they’re actually budget hawks—at a time when massive spending may be needed to keep a sharp recession from turning into an outright depression—will find themselves steamrollered by history, I’m afraid.
And then there’s the question of trying to knit together the Republican Party’s warring factions. Many “movement” conservatives still believe they have found a champion in Sarah Palin. A lot of pragmatists believe Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal represents the future of the party. Jeb Bush may be the party’s most skillful and well-rounded politician, but there’s the problem of that unfortunate last name.
One acute problem that Republicans could deal with quickly, but probably won’t, is that the party is so far out of touch with the country—especially with key sectors of the electorate—on so many of the issues. Exit polls showed, for example, that McCain failed to attract significant support from women who had supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and were bitterly disappointed by her failure to win the nomination.
He chose Palin, in part, to make a play for these voters. But two things made this gambit a nonstarter. First, Palin was, well, Palin. And second, she and her party continue to espouse a position on abortion rights that most Americans consider dangerously wrong.
And here’s the truly ominous trend for the Republicans: Hispanic voters nationwide chose Obama over McCain by 67 percent to 31 percent. This is a huge shift from 2004, when George Bush won an estimated 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, and the trend was instrumental in moving states such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado into the Democratic column last Tuesday. How did the Republicans manage this feat? By blocking sensible immigration reform and appealing to the red-meat conservative base with rhetoric that could only be taken as xenophobic.
Hispanics constitute the nation’s biggest and fastest-growing minority. Apparently they have no place in the “center-right America” of Republican fantasy.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group