We seek to identify the people and ideas that will lead the Republican Party back out of the wilderness. Topics include core conservatism, potential national leaders, constituencies that that the GOP must reach and the messages that will reach them.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Original Sins

What's in the Republican DNA? Ask a liberal that question and you'll get a litany of dark elements: Racism, nativism, red-baiting, anti-intellectualism and fear. Frank Rich recently served up this dish to his New York Times readers, who were no doubt ready to believe every word of it. In Rich's view, the GOP "is now more representative of 20th-century South Africa during apartheid than 21st-century America." Neil Gabler in the Los Angeles Times traces the party's dominant conservative strain not to principled libertarians such as Barry Goldwater but to Joe McCarthy, the 20th century's leading practitioner of what historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics." Both men, in their way, were nurturing the old libel that Republicans can win national elections only by appealing to the baser instincts of American voters. If John McCain somehow had won, that would quickly have become the standard theory to explain his victory.

It's never smart to tune out your critics, especially the more thoughtful ones such as Gabler. But the fact is that gaining and holding power in a two-party system demands considerable nose-holding. You don't get a majority on your side by setting out lofty principles and waiting for the voters to applaud. Instead, you need to patch together majorities by appealing to people and places that can have quite different interests, views of the world and views of each other. Until the 1960s, the Democratic Party held power by keeping Northern liberals and whites from the segregated South under one tent. As late as 1964, the most stubborn resistance to racial equality under the law came from within the Democratic Party. The Landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended the Jim Crow era in the South, would not have passed without the support of Senate Republicans and their leader Everett Dirksen, who worked with liberal Democrats to break the Southern Democrats' filibuster and bring the bill to the vote. It was Richard Russell, a Democrat from Georgia, who said, "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states."

Little-told stories such as these are good to remember when Democrats start talking about GOP Original Sin. The Democratic Party has other history it would rather live down, such as its confused response to Soviet aggression and its post-Vietnam defeatism. Southern whites did migrate to the Republican Party as the party turned to the right in 1964. But it took much more than the so-called "Southern strategy" to explain Richard Nixon's landslide win over George McGovern in 1972, when McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Then, as in other years of decisive Republican victories (1980, 1988 and 2004), the Democratic candidate was seen as weak or vacillating and the Republican won on a platform (and perception) of strength. A tradition of upholding American interests with a second-to-none defense has been part of Republican DNA at least as far back as Teddy Roosevelt. If Barack Obama finds a way to reestablish the Democratic Party in the voters' mind as a party of strength, the Republicans are in big trouble for the long term. But if he's not so inclined, or if he's stymied by the left wing of his party, then the GOP may come back sooner than its critics would ever have dreamed. And race won't have anything to do with it.

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