Thursday, January 15, 2009

Can You Rebuild a Party Based On Nostalgia??? Or, What Do the Republicans Do About George W. Bush???

A few weeks back John wrote about the Republican party’s current search for a new Chairman. While I haven’t followed the sweepstakes blow for blow, some aspects have caught my attention and led me to think more broadly about the direction of the party.

In a much publicized debate (watch here) on January 5th hosted by Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform, all six of the candidates to head the RNC were asked to name our greatest president. Not missing a beat, each dutifully answered “Reagan” in an almost Pavlovian fashion. This fealty to Reagan seems to be the first commandment of modern Republicanism. While the Gipper was certainly the modern GOP’s most successful politician, there seems to me to be some real danger in trying to refashion the Republican Party around a theme of Reagan revival and nostalgia.

As much of the data on last year’s election has made clear, a strong predictor of the vote was age. Among the cohort of voters under the age of 30, Obama won two thirds of the vote. As much of the literature on political socialization has shown, party loyalties tend to be fashioned early in one’s life and endure rather well over time. Thus, the Democrats are salivating over these numbers, seeing a solid voting block extending well into the future. While its naïve to think that this age cohort will continue to have such solid Democratic loyalty as they enter their 40’s, 50’s, and beyond, its not far fetched to speculate on the numerical advantage they’ll have, especially when combined with other variables pointing in the Dems favor—increases is the minority population and the correlation between level of education and Democratic support.

So why the danger in dwelling on Reagan?? When this was originally reported I couldn’t help but think of the students that I teach. My current group of students—those just entering political life through voting, internships, and other types of mobilization—was born in 1988. They have absolutely no direct recollection or memory of Ronald Reagan. In fact, they were twelve when Bill Clinton left office!!! For them, the only President they’ve had any meaningful experience with is George W. Bush. And from the exit polling we’ve seen, that experience doesn’t appear to have been too positive. In thinking about this phenomenon, I got to wondering about how presidential legacies are both important in shaping people’s view of parties and policies yet also hindrances in allowing parties and politics to move forward.

When presidents get elected and parties come to power, they do so through the formation of coalitions—a collection of individuals and groups who, at best share a common set of policy preferences and interests, and at the very least, are drawn to one side more than the other, usually out of disappointment with the ruling party’s performance. These coalitions are oftentimes fragile as coalition members differ about policy specifics or priorities. In these cases, the interest of maintaining power takes precedence over ideological purity. Whether or not these coalitions remain intact and endure over time has been crucial to our thinking about eras of party dominance or “realignments.” When a coalition disintegrates, parties enter into periods of self-examination. They must figure out why their support disappeared and how to cobble together the support necessary to return to power.

Some historical examples can be used to illustrate this. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Republican Party used the memory of Lincoln and "waving the bloody shirt” to ensure a series of victories throughout the Gilded Age. At some point, though, that was no longer enough to win. Lincoln, though an American giant, was no longer at the forefront of Americans’ consciousness and the Civil War generation had died off. A new strategy was needed. Later, the Democratic Party rose to dominance with the formation of the “New Deal Coalition.” With support from the South, big cities, unions, farmers, and increasingly African Americans, FDR was able to win 4 successive elections and the Democrats were able to control Congress consistently for over a generation. By the end of LBJ’s term, though, the coalition had frayed. This brings us to Reagan. Reagan’s success was not just in giving some clarity to the Republican Party’s policies, but in co-opting those prodigal members of the old Roosevelt coalition—working class whites, southerners, etc. and bringing them over to the Republican side.

While Clinton was able to bring some of them back, George W. Bush’s two victories, though extremely narrow, had many in the GOP ranks positing an enduring Republican majority. We now know how that turned out--and that’s where the GOP’s problem lies, in my view. I don’t know how you can rebuild the GOP by trying to act as if Bush never existed. How do you rewind to Reagan and start over? Again I think of my students’ generation. When they think of the Republican Party, they don’t think of Reagan, they think of Bush. Even on the Democratic side this year we saw how the American electorate has a short term memory. Much of Hillary Clinton’s campaign seemed premised on the notion of a Clinton Renaissance—“vote for me and we’ll go back to the 90’s when everything was great.” Again, we’ve seen how that turned out. A candidate who was wholly forward looking captured voters’ attention, offered a new type of politics, and rode to victory.

This brings us to Bush. As he prepares to leave office next week, a number of press outlets have been compiling retrospectives on the Bush years. As one might expect, the pictures have not been positive. Whether it be fiscal, foreign, or domestic policy, the Bush legacy is not one that many will point to, especially in the near term, as worth being repeated. How, then, does the Republican Party regroup? How do they address the Bush legacy? Do they, after a respectful period, go through a period of disavowing everything done over the past eight years—essentially arguing that Bush was not a true conservative? With explosive spending, hubristic foreign policy ambitions, and a regular disregard for limited government and “states rights,” there is certainly ample evidence for this claim. The question of Bush’s “real” conservatism was a subject explored in depth in Andrew Sullivan’sThe Conservative Soul.” The downside of this strategy, of course, is that you alienate much of the party’s base, those Americans who still give Bush relatively high approval ratings. The other downside is that, over the past two elections, there seems to be a greater willingness for Americans to accept “more government.” A more ideologically pure Republican Party may in fact be an even less popular one.

For a second strategy, on the other hand, do you try and move forward, acting as if the Bush years were a bit of an aberration in conservatism’s march (never articulating this belief, though) in hopes that the American electorate will forget, over time, their negative feelings about the past eight years and return to the Republican fold? While there is an ebb and flow to our politics--bringing parties in and out of power--that might justify riding out the storm, I’m still not convinced that pining for a return to Reaganism is the right course. A party built on an image or nostalgia for the way things used to be will have difficulty moving forward, especially when the electorate they are trying to court has moved on.

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