Can Identity Politics Save the Right?

There are two points at which a political party or an ideological faction can find its voice and begin to claim power. One, of course, is when it is at the height of confidence and electoral success, like Ronald Reagan's conservatives in 1981. The other is when it has hit bottom, when there's nothing more to lose, no constituencies to feed, no illusion that anything in the current strategy is working, no excuse for caution.

The Republican Party today is certainly not in the first position. But, with party identification favoring Democrats by the widest margin in 16 years, and Republicans losing even the battle for campaign money, the party may be close to the second. Parties in nonparliamentary, winner-take-all systems don't disappear. The recent resurgence of the British Conservative Party is a reminder that even after a decade of futility, a new leader, a vision, and impatience with the incumbent party can turn things around quickly. But for now, with Republican state parties in shambles, with no chance of reclaiming a congressional majority any time soon, and suffering, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned, "a catastrophic collapse of trust," the GOP could be hitting that bottom, and grabbing desperately onto a frayed lifeline--the identity politics of American-ness--in a last bid for survival.

To appreciate the value of hitting bottom, consider what happened to the Democratic Party and liberalism. All through the Reagan and first Bush eras, and again in the Clinton years, Democrats always had something. The institutional heart of the party was in the House of Representatives, and during the Reagan era, the complacent assumption that "we'll always have the House" meant that many important Democratic figures didn't feel they had much stake in whether Michael Dukakis won the presidency or President Clinton succeeded. After the Gingrich takeover of Congress in 1994, the Democratic Party's purpose became identified with the personal survival and renewal of the Clinton presidency. Only after 2002, when the Democrats finally lost everything, when they reached the political equivalent of living in their car, did the path to renewal begin. Accelerated by the disaster of the war and awareness of their own complicity in it, enraged by the media and energized by new voices such as the "netroots" bloggers and the stellar candidates of 2006 and 2008, the Democrats proved that a party, and even its liberal wing, can turn things around almost completely in just four or six years.

The Republican Party, though, has always had a different attitude about risk, almost courting disaster while the Democrats postponed it. In Building Red America, his slightly belated 2006 opus on the Republican plan for permanent power, Thomas B. Edsall points to studies showing that core Republicans are "confident risk-takers"--white men with a very high tolerance for hazard. But as Edsall notes, they are so confident because they have been generally insulated from the consequences of their risk-taking--think of George W. Bush's career as an oil man, or of Bear Stearns, or of the quasi-celebrities whose messes are discreetly taken care of. And while conservative pundits and some of their politicians are in a state of panic, political strategists like Karl Rove carry themselves with the confident swagger of an investment banker who just lost $2 billion of someone else's money but still has the Fifth Avenue apartment and the house in Bedford. Rove's scheme to establish a 30-year reign of absolute Republican power increasingly looks like yet another gamble of the bubble economy, like a hedge-fund scheme that couldn't fail until it failed.

Whether it has a secret Swiss bank account of political capital or not, the Republican Party is not going away, and conservative ideas, despite their failure in practice, probably still have a hold on the American instinct. A fully ruined Republican Party could be as dangerous and consequential as one holding on to some scraps of power. But even if it retains the presidency, the party, and the conservative movement with which it became conjoined, faces deep structural problems--and the next moves are far from clear.

The Downfall

To understand the depth of the hole that the Republican Party finds itself in this year, set aside the presidential race for a moment and zoom out the map. The real secret of Republican success starting in 1994 and into this decade was not Newt Gingrich or Karl Rove--it was big-state Republican governors who were seen as successful in implementing actual conservative policies, from welfare reform to standards-based education reform to tax-cutting economics. In the late 1990s, you could start in Boston and drive out I-90 to Chicago, back up and down through the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest, and with the idiosyncratic exception of Indiana, the governor's name on every "Welcome to ..." sign you passed would be that of a Republican, most likely popular and considered successful. Although much of that success was built on accounting fraud (Christine Todd Whitman, that means you), it was these Republican governors who made voters comfortable with the idea that conservative governance could work. Republican governors of the 1990s produced the senators (George Voinovich, Lamar Alexander), cabinet secretaries (Tom Ridge, Tommy Thompson, John Ashcroft), and the president of the current decade.

Today all this is gone. There are still 23 Republican governors, but of the big states in the Northeast and Midwest, only Minnesota is governed by a Republican. A handful of the 23 are considered successful, mostly because they have moderated their predecessors' conservatism--notably Charlie Crist of Florida, who reversed many of the barriers to voting set up by Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, and Jim Douglas of Vermont succeed by accommodating liberal Democratic legislatures to such a degree that it could be argued that they give Democratic legislators a little more courage, because the governors will share political responsibility for tax increases or other policies that might bring a backlash. (I grew up in Connecticut, and it's unquestionably a more reliably progressive state now than when it had Democratic governors in my youth, passing domestic-partnership and real campaign-finance reform legislation, raising the estate tax, and moving toward a universal health program.) A few other GOP governors, including Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Jon Huntsman of Utah, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and Sarah Palin of Alaska, are considered successful conservatives but run states that are so solidly red that for purposes of the presidency and the Senate, their success has little external effect.

Future governors, members of Congress, and policy initiatives will emerge from state legislatures, but those, too, have been flipping to the Democrats. Of the 99 state legislative bodies, Democrats control 58 and Republicans 40 (Nebraska's single house is nonpartisan), and only seven states are fully controlled by Republicans. In several cases, the new Democratic majorities have been bolstered by waves of party-switching. These are numbers last seen in the 1980s, when Democratic legislative majorities included very conservative Democrats in the South.

At the national level, Democrats in the House of Representatives have a robust margin of 37, which is likely to grow. (Only four Democratic seats are currently considered toss--ups.) The Democratic majority in the next Senate is almost certain to be big enough that it will not have to depend on Joe Lieberman continuing to call himself a Democrat, and it could reach 56 or 57. Most notably, unlike the last Democratic majorities in the early 1990s, this one will not depend on the party's ultraconservatives. The most conservative Democrats today--Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas--are vastly more liberal than their predecessors and, not being from the Deep South, don't have one foot out of the party.

Significantly, these Democratic majorities at every level are unshakeable in November. There are only 11 gubernatorial elections this year, and only three of those are considered competitive. Only one Democratic Senate seat is in play, and even that incumbent, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, has been strong in polls. Retirements, scandals, and strong recruiting give Democrats an advantage in Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, and several other states. While a few House Democrats who beat scandal--plagued Republicans in 2006 will have to struggle to hold on to those heavily Republican districts, a far larger number of Democrats are seeking to take the seats of retiring or weakened Republicans in districts trending Democratic. On April 22, a Democrat won the plurality of the vote in a special election for a Mississippi House seat in a district designated "R+10"--as Republican as it gets. On the same day George W. Bush set a new record for the highest disapproval rating ever recorded for a president. As blogger Matt Stoller wrote that evening, "The public hates Republicans."

John McCain may well win the presidency. If he does, though, it will not be because Stoller is wrong but because McCain is able to retain a reputation as somehow separate from the public's perception of the Republican Party--that he is honorable where the Party is corrupt, moderate where it is far right. A McCain victory will not in itself restore the Republican brand, although it may lay the foundation for a certain kind of comeback. While McCain's instincts are conservative, it's quite likely that a President McCain would look a lot like Gov. Schwarzenegger or Gov. Rell, with McCain having no alternative but to collaborate with a heavily Democratic legislative branch, perhaps being warmly received as a result. So while McCain might well win, and might even be deemed a moderately successful president, he will not do so by solving the deep structural problems of the post-Bush Republican Party and conservatism's decadent phase, but by divorcing himself from them.

McCain may be able to leave the Republican Party and the conservative movement behind, but it remains to be seen whether the Republican Party can divorce itself from the failures of conservatism. In theory, of course, conservatives and Republicans are not the same, and one can succeed while the other fails. After all, it's only been a few decades that the Republican Party has been distinctly conservative. But much of the success of both in the last decades has been in their mutual embrace. Republican moderates like former Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut chose to throw in their lot with conservatives like Gingrich not for reasons of ideology but because they saw the conservatives' passion as the means to a reinvigorated, aggressive party. And the conservatives--who had at first succeeded by building institutions outside of the party--then threw themselves into it completely. As a result, conservatism and the Republican Party now rise and fall together and cannot easily be disentangled. The Northeastern Republican moderates are now nearly extinct (Johnson was unseated in 2006), and conservatism has no other home. Bush, his administration, the Republican brand, and all but a few Republican officeholders are deeply unpopular and so is almost every aspect of conservative policy.

Conservatives like to construct an elaborate tale of betrayal in which the true faith can be restored by wresting it away from the unseemly ambitions of Republican politicians. But that story denies the reality that the downfall of both the party and the movement began on the very moment that Bush shed all the hedges and compromises--such as "compassionate conservatism" and the Medicare prescription drug benefit--and began to try to govern like a conservative. The Bush era ended two days after the 2004 re-election when Bush declared, "I earned ... political capital, and now I intend to spend it." Starting with the effort to privatize Social Security, everything went straight downhill. The rejection of the Republican Party came not because it failed conservatism but because conservatism failed.

The Paths Back to Power

Whether after a total defeat, losing both houses of Congress and the presidency for the first time in 16 years, or under the circumstances of a compromised, drifting McCain presidency, Republicans and conservatives will face the same question: How do they rebuild political power?

As Republican Party officials fade into insignificance (how many people would recognize the chairman of the Republican National Committee or even House Minority Leader John Boehner in an airport?), the face of the party becomes its pundits, bloggers, and former grandees like Gingrich, former Rep. Mickey Edwards, and Jack Abramoff–accomplice Grover Norquist. These Republicans are filling the bookstores with soon-to-be-remaindered titles like Comeback, Grand New Party, Reclaiming Conservatism, and Heroic Conservatism, all premised on one variation or another of the "we lost our way" theory.

Animating all these books is the idea of ideas or as they like to say, in a motto attributed to the agrarian conservative Richard Weaver, that "ideas have consequences." We have an intellectual history, conservatives often condescendingly tell liberals, while you just have feelings. "Conservatives won by out-researching, out-thinking, out-arguing, and out-smarting their opponents," former Bush speechwriter David Frum writes in Comeback, and lost their way when "conservatives began to argue that intellect no longer mattered to conservative politics."

The more specific ideas proposed in some of these books are mostly smart and palatable. If the intellectual commissars of the opposition party were Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, who in Grand New Party propose supplementing a mild social conservatism with actual economic supports for fragile families, our political system would be nicely balanced. If former Rep. Mickey Edwards' call in Reclaiming Conservatism for a respectful constitutional libertarianism and a restoration of the balance of powers were the Republican ideology, I would think of the party as a sometimes useful check on the ambitions of liberalism. But most of these ideas are not what they claim to be: plans for renewing the party by anchoring it in a rediscovery of the moral absolutes of conservatism. Rather, they are purely improvisational, tactical positioning--attempts to meet the public demand for action on health care and climate change without accepting liberal solutions, much like the Bush Republicans' attempt to meet the demand for prescription-drug coverage under Medicare. These are elegant, short-term compromises disguised as ideology. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Dozens of similar prescriptions were written for the Democrats during the wilderness years and formed the basis for the Democratic Leadership Council, for Clinton's second-term triangulation, and for the cautious posturing of Vice President Gore and Democrats in the 2000-2002 period. The difference is that all those proposals at least had parallels in the actual practice of Democratic politics. The Republican prescriptions exist in a hypothetical world, rather like the alternative historical fiction novels that Gingrich cranks out in between his visions of the future. "What if the Republicans had commonsense ideas?" is the new "What if the South had won the Civil War?"

If Republican politicians were testing these ideas on the campaign trail or in Congress, they might be of more than academic interest. Debates among the 11 initial Republican presidential candidates would have been expected to provide a forum for a range of ideas about the party's future. But it was not to be. A momentary glimmer of the Douthat/Salam theory was visible when Mike Huckabee talked about health care as a moral obligation, but he was so tied down by the most extreme version of the tax-cut agenda that he couldn't do anything with it. Mitt Romney briefly abandoned the laissez-faire economic dogma to speak of Republican investment in key fields, like green jobs and the auto industry, but those talking points expired as soon as they served their purpose of helping Romney win the Michigan primary, after which it was back to cutting taxes and doubling the size of Guantanamo Bay.

The eventual nominee, John McCain, brings nothing new to the table of political ideas, except for a uniquely militaristic view of American supremacy in the world. There is no philosophy of "McCainism" around which the election will revolve. Nor are there any up-and-coming Republican officials, with the possible exception of Gov. Crist of Florida, who take any of this reformist thinking seriously. Even Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, whose phrase, "Sam's Club Republicans" inspired Douthat and Salam, is a conventional tax-cutter and social conservative. Rather than reconstructing a coherent philosophy out of their compromises, Republican politicians fall back on a mode of argument (modeled on Gingrich, its original master) that involves making occasional grand and ridiculous gestures toward supportive government--"a laptop for every child" or more recently, advocating legislation to ensure "more energy at lower cost with less environmental damage and greater national security"--followed by a quick return to the traditional bromides about tax cuts and entitlements. One admires the conservative writers for their resilient commitment to the idea that ideas matter, in the face of all evidence that in actual Republican politics, they've never mattered less.

The second path for Republican renewal is to use the opportunistic power of pure opposition, free from the responsibility to participate in governing the country. The Republican structure was always a machine better designed for opposition than for governance, and the unity-in-opposition of the early Clinton years is surely the moment for which conservatives are most nostalgic. They are geared up to destroy the next Democratic administration as soon as it comes forward with any kind of tax increase, a health-care proposal, an initiative on climate change, a plan to end the Iraq War, or anything related to guns or gays.

In the 16 months since the Democrats took over Congress, Bush has been able to hold the initiative in part by operating as the opposition party from within the White House, vetoing and threatening vetoes, casting every Democratic effort to end the war or limit warrantless surveillance as surrender. But whether McCain is president or not, by the natural rhythm of politics, it will be almost impossible to sustain the kind of disciplined, crafty opposition that allowed the Republicans to set the agenda from below as they did in 1993 or 2007. For one thing, there are far fewer Democrats who will play along or be as easily spooked as they were in 1993. For another, holding together absolute party unity will not be as easy this time. What's in it for Sens. Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, or Gordon Smith to join a vicious attack on a Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton health proposal, especially if it reflects some of their ideas? It doesn't help them in their states, it won't help them get any closer to a congressional majority, and it won't exactly brighten their legacy. Pure opposition politics would be further complicated by the fact that the politics of taxes can no longer be cast in absolute terms. There is no possibility of extending all of the Bush tax cuts when they expire starting in 2010. There will be pressure immediately to work out a deal on the estate tax in particular, and permanent repeal is no longer a possibility. So even though Republicans will yell about the "biggest tax increase in history," it will be a debate about the structure of that large tax increase, not about whether to increase taxes. If Democrats can master the congressional agenda, they can construct a package that continues tax cuts for the middle class while restoring fair treatment of capital gains and dividend income. Ever since George H.W. Bush's 1990 budget deal, which raised some taxes, Norquist and other conservatives have insisted on an absolute choice between raising taxes and cutting them. But when it becomes impossible to cast tax choices in such pure terms, the most powerful weapon in the Republican arsenal of opposition will be lifted from Republicans' hands.

The Identity Pander

That leaves Republicans with a single alternative, one that's embodied in the slogan of McCain's first general-election advertisement: "The American President Americans Are Waiting For." It's the politics of identity--not necessarily racial or ethnic identity but identity as an American. The blog FiveThirtyEight.com, which has been gathering all sorts of data relevant to the Electoral College vote, recently noted a fascinating demographic fact: About 7 percent of people refuse to answer the Census questions about ethnic origin and instead write in "American." Those defiant Americans are overwhelmingly found in the states and counties that turned away from the Democratic Party in 2000 and 2004--the Appalachian belt running from West Virginia through Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio--which are also the counties where Barack Obama has done worst in the primaries.

David Frum calls explicitly for this brand of identity politics, declaring that while the Republican Party's issue positions have evolved over the years, "there is one thing that has never changed: Republicans have always been the party of American democratic nationhood," whereas Democrats "attract those who felt themselves in some way marginal to the American experience: ... intellectuals, Catholics, Jews, blacks, feminists, gays--people who identify with the ‘pluribus' in the nation's motto, ‘e pluribus unum.'" In case it's not clear, in Frum's Latin, "pluribus" means "parasites," and he tells us helpfully, "As the nation weakens, Democrats grow stronger."

In Frum's book, this ugly bit of identity politics is carefully nestled within thousands of words about policy. And this is how the code is supposed to work. The GOP's attack on "liberals" was always an attack on people not quite like "Americans"--secular, cosmopolitan, educated, egalitarian. When Republicans went after Michael Dukakis for his policies on crime, they weren't just saying his policies were bad. They were saying, he's not like us; he's a cold-blooded, academic mush-brain who wouldn't give his kids a whupping if they needed it.

The politics of American-ness needs to be cloaked in policy, simply because it's unpalatable otherwise. Without the helpful crutches of symbolic issues like welfare, crime, and immigration, the raw edges of the politics of people-not-like-us would be a little too uncomfortable, and not just for those of us who fall into one or more of the "pluribus" categories. But thanks to the unlikely trio of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and John McCain, the usual game is impossible. Clinton took welfare and crime off the political agenda. Bush made global belligerence and eternal tax cuts unpalatable. And McCain's inconvenient position on immigration takes away what Republicans last fall were dreaming would be their silver bullet. As a result, with Americans saying they are willing to pay more taxes for health care and better schools, with Republicans at a disadvantage in the polls on every single issue, there is no respectable costume in which to dress up identity politics.

Traditionally, the phrase "identity politics" has referred to the Democratic coalition's caucuses, interest groups, and competitive claims of wrongs to be righted and rights to be granted. Identity politics on the left, according to this very conventional wisdom, opened the door to an alternative politics of national identity on the right. And yet in 2008, the Democratic presidential nomination battle between an African American and a woman has not exacerbated left identity politics but brought it to a peaceful close. Obama is not Jesse Jackson; Hillary Clinton is not former Rep. Pat Schroeder. He chose to campaign on national reconciliation, she on bread-and-butter economics and her expertise on military affairs. Whereas McCain--a man whose known positions on the war and on the economy are deeply unpopular, whose other positions are endlessly shifting, whose party and ideology are rejected--is recast entirely in terms of his biography, his honor, his character, his American-ness.

This year the Republican argument is reduced to its barest essence: Americans versus "pluribus," unprotected by the politeness of issues or safer symbolism. Hence McCain's slogan, the politics of the flag pin, the e-mails charging that Obama doesn't salute the flag, and the attempt to associate him with the anti-American politics of 1968, when he was 7 years old. This, then, may be the ultimate high-stakes gamble for the party of confident risk-takers: Accept that everything else--ideas, competence, governance--is gone, and instead of trying to reconstruct it, as the books recommend, bet everything on the bare essentials of Republican identity politics, "The American President Americans Are Waiting For."

If it works, it will be in part because we--by which I mean the media and many Democrats--believe it will. We are easily spooked by the confident swagger of the Republicans, who not so long ago were plotting permanent world domination. But then, so was Bear Stearns.

If it fails, the Republican Party will be left with nothing. It will be a regional party, with no hold on government, no up-and-coming generation of politicians, no noble ideas which might have their day again. For Republicans, that may be the better result. It might take a decade, but like the British Conservatives, one day a new leader will emerge, read the books about reforming conservatism, embrace a new vision, and rebuild a party that can compete for power without trying to monopolize it.

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