Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The House That George Built

I hear you can take over the mortgage for pennies on the dollar

As you can tell from previous posts, we at VomPolitik are just about calling this election, and we’re not the only ones. The electoral math hasn’t been there for McCain for a while, and he now has no realistic path to victory.

This is not just the end of the McCain candidacy. His technically hypothetical but now virtually inevitable defeat marks the end of Republican primacy in national politics. Marcus even predicts, quite reasonably, that the midterm of 2010 will favor the party in power and deliver or consolidate Democratic control in the Senate.

While McCain need look no further than the mirror to find a compelling reason for the end of his candidacy, there is no doubt that he inherited a party with serious structural problems. The Republican Party is very much a house divided, and we know what its greatest member said about those. This narrative is already out and about in the media, but what is not discussed is the fact that, for the Republican Party, the worst is yet to come. Eight years after victory in the presidential race (and Supreme Court), six years out from an historic election triumph, and four years out from a second presidential victory that had Republicans toasting to permanent power and the Dems in disarray, The House That George W. Built has well and truly collapsed, and it may be impossible to rebuild. In the post I will talk about its construction, and later will detail its collapse and cast an eye over its very grim future.

Curious George Builds a House

The Republican Party of the post-Nixon-era was founded on three pillars: social conservatism, economic conservatism, and security conservatism.

It’s important to note that the joining of the three forces represented a new birth for the GOP. The Republican Party began as liberals and social reformers, popularized under Lincoln, and continued in this vein through Teddy Roosevelt. After Roosevelt the Republican Party began to forsake a bit of its liberalism, trading it in for market-based competence, which went rather out of favor with Herbert Hoover. The next Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, bore very little resemblance to modern Republicans, presiding over some of the highest tax rates in US history as he insisted on balancing a budget heavy on government spending.

It was not until Nixon that Republicans truly became the conservatives we know today. Economic conservatives, who believed in small government and low taxes, had been with the party more or less since Franklin Roosevelt drove them into opposition; social conservatives whose sensibilities were offended by the 1960s (either its excesses or its genuine progress) joined in; and security conservatives who believed that the Republican Party could justifiably claim the title of pro-military and pro-soldier (and anti-communist) in view of the Left’s increasing anti-militarism turned up as well. Some Democratic Party loyalists are wont to describe these three constituencies as the Intolerant, the Insecure, and the Greedy. Marcus suggested that recent market events require this be updated to the Intolerant, the Insecure and the Insolvent. I could not possibly comment.

Nixon himself wasn’t solely responsible for the rise of modern conservative Republicanism – William F. Buckley Jr. deserves his share of credit, among a host of others – but his election was the first one based on the three pillars. That he then became embroiled in the greatest political scandal in American history and forever tarnished the Office of the Presidency was a bit of a setback, but it was only seven years after his resignation that conservative Republicanism reached its apotheosis in the form of the Reagan Revolution, a dominating political performance based on the promise of low taxes, a muscular military and foreign policy, and rhetoric strong in the language of socially conservative values.

To understand how dominant this ideology has been, consider that of the seven presidential elections between 1980 and 2004, more voters cast their ballot for left-of-center candidates than right-of-center candidates only twice (1996 and 2000), and one of those was the reelection campaign of a president whose middle-of-the-road liberalism prevailed in 1992 only because the 56% conservative vote was divided between two candidates. Even that mid-road liberalism was rejected by voters a scant two years later in the Republican Revolution of 1994.

By 2000, though, the stool appeared ready to weaken. Democrats had gained in 1996, 1998, and would go on to win the popular vote in 2000. That the presidential election of 2000 was decided under rather dubious circumstances is a matter of public record. It is also a matter of public record that George W. Bush prevailed. Low-tax conservatives responded to his talks of tax cuts. Security hawks had never been crazy about Bill Clinton and did not much like Al Gore. More importantly, though, social conservatives responded to his Born-Again background and rhetoric; his “restoring dignity to the White House” line was a huge hit, and Bush became the first president elected by a Republican Party dominated by the religious right.

Even so, the dodgy circumstances of his election, coupled with his loss of the popular vote and the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords from the Republican Party, returning power over the Senate to the Democrats, left Bush without much clout for the first year of his Presidency. September 11, 2001 sent security voters hurrying for authority, and Bush’s Reagan-esque, moralist, us v. them foreign policy was just right for the moment. The Republican Party leveraged it into a crushing electoral victory in 2002 when security-minded voters were so alarmed that they were even persuaded that Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in the service of his country in Vietnam, was somehow disloyal to the American military. The Republican House had never been more imposing.

Four years later, its modern maker had badly weakened it. Six years later, he had destroyed it.

No comments: