by Frank Schnittger
Sun Feb 3rd, 2008 at 09:03:37 AM EST
True to my occasional tendency to be a contrarian, I am going to quote Karl Rove in Crackup? Not So Fast in support of my thesis that a Democratic Victory in November is anything but assured. This will probably get me into almost as much trouble as my piece on Israel/Palestine: One state or two? which lead to some troll rated comments to the effect that I was trying to complete Hitler's work and which effectively ended all further discussion of the topic.
Judging by most of the comments on his Newsweek article, Karl Rove ranks as the anti-Christ for most Americans, with only died-in-the-wool Reagan/Bush supporters being prepared to read, never mind discuss his actual comments. Must of the invective there would probably be troll rated here unless it is ok to be childishly vituperative towards a Republican strategist.
I write this as McCain looks set to win the GOP nomination as early as next Tuesday, having established huge leads over Romney and a flat-lining Huckabee. The Democratic contest, on the other hand, is becoming a real dogfight, with Obama establishing very significant momentum on the ground and eating into Clinton's previously unassailable leads in major states like California. It ain't over till the fat lady sings, and she hasn't even cleared her throat yet.
However even here on ET, confidence in a Democratic victory is beginning to wane. Having received absolutely no votes in the first 4 polls conducted at the end of each article in this series, McCain suddenly jumped to being the favourite with 47% predicting a McCain victory in November in Poll 5 in the series. Have we really so little confidence in our ideas and our ability to sell them to the American electorate?
"We are at the end of the Reagan era." Or, at least, that is the claim of voices as diverse as Newt Gingrich and Ed Rollins on the right and Sen. Chuck Schumer and pollster Stanley Greenberg on the left. It is true the Republican Party is having difficulty retooling its message for the 21st century. But so is the Democratic Party.
Every presidential election is about change, and no more so than at the end of a two-term president's time in the White House. Parties have to constantly update themselves if they hope to remain relevant. The difficulty for both Republicans and Democrats is that our political system is at a point where more than the normal amount of party growth and development is needed. Both parties are suffering the consequences of seeing substantial parts of their 20th-century agendas adopted; both parties are struggling to fashion new answers to the new challenges of a young century.
But that's not to say that the Reagan legacy is exhausted. Ronald Reagan's legacy was not simply that he was "a campaigner and orator of uncommon skill," as Don Campbell argued last week in USA Today. President Reagan's gifts to the Republican Party were ideas: growing the economy through tax cuts, limiting government's size, forcefully confronting totalitarian threats, making human rights a centerpiece of America's foreign policy, respecting unborn human life, empowering the individual with more freedom. Those ideas endure. They give Republicans a philosophical foundation on which to build. The Reagan coalition has a natural desire to stick together. Fiscal, defense and values conservatives have more in common with each other than with any major element of the Democratic Party's leadership.
Democrats have a similar philosophical storehouse in the ideas of FDR and LBJ. Both expanded the size and scope of the federal government and saw it in almost an entirely positive light: as an agent of economic redistribution from the rich to the less affluent, as a provider to the poor and the disabled and as an enforcer of equal rights and equal justice. The Democratic Party has two challenges. One is that the modern economy has led voters to prefer markets, decentralization and consumer choice far more than centralized control by government and the substitution of "expert" decisions for those of the individual. The other challenge is that many in that party mistake the "Third Way" tactics of the Clinton years for a substantive approach to governing. Triangulation--making yourself look good at the expense of allies and adversaries in both parties--is lousy for providing coherent answers to modern issues.
Why then the media's recent fascination with the supposed demise of the Republican Party? What are the reasons given for why, at least when it comes to the Republicans, "the party's over," as NEWSWEEK recently pronounced? First, we are told the GOP nomination has not been won "fairly quickly," as in recent contests. This is a horrible misremembering of history. The senior Bush took 45 days after the first contest to secure the nomination in 1988. It took Bob Dole 35 days to become the presumptive nominee in 1996. The current president took 45 days to clear the field in 2000. The first contest this year was on Jan. 3. Let's at least give the process until the middle or end of February before pundits start predicting doom because of how long it's taking. And if the Republican nomination not being settled is evidence of disaster, what does the Democratic nomination being up for grabs say? It's normal for both parties' nominees to be undecided at this point. The season is not moving too slowly. If anything, it is moving too quickly this time, with 38 contests in the first 33 days.
Second, we are told recently by Susan Page, also in USA Today, that "never before in modern times has there been such a muddle," and then by Jon Meacham in this magazine that the "chaotic nature of the Republican primary race" means "the party of Reagan is now divided in ways it has not been in more than a generation." Many who witnessed the primary battles of 2000, 1996, 1992 or 1988 might disagree. By their nature, primary races are chaotic. Then a nominee emerges, and the chaos recedes (most of the time). If spirited competition on the Republican side is evidence of a crackup, then what about the Democratic battle? It is focused more and more on race and gender, and Hillary Clinton has the highest negatives of any candidate at this point in an open race for the presidency. The Democratic House and Senate have plummeted to the poorest congressional approval ratings in history.
Third, we are told Democrats have raised more money. You will search in vain for a similar declaration of last rites for the Democrats in 2000 when Republicans outraised them. And having more money doesn't decide the contest. Consider 2004, when Democratic presidential candidates, committees and 527s outspent their Republican counterparts by $124 million--and lost. Besides, the RNC has nearly eight times the cash on hand as the DNC. Just a month has passed since voting began, and nine months remain before November. Let's see what happens to Republican bank accounts as the year goes on.
Maybe we are not seeing the crackup of the GOP. Rather, America is more likely to be at the start of an intense and exciting election. The contest will be hard fought, the actions of the candidates each day hugely significant. It's far too early to draw sweeping conclusions about the health of either party; the presidential race, after all, has barely begun. Lots of surprises lie ahead.
One does not have to be a Republican sympathiser or agree with his analyses of FDR's or Reagan's legacies to accept that much of the above is at least arguable. McCain looks to have his party's nomination all but sown up, and is seen even by many independents as relatively untainted by the Bush legacy of unjust war, incompetent economic management, encroachment on civil liberties, and a further re-distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.
The risks for McCain, in my view, are threefold:
Firstly he is the oldest Presidential candidate in history, which presents clear risks to his ability to sustain what is bound to be a grueling campaign and still be seen as fresh and ready for office come November.
Secondly, for all his honourable track record as a war hero, Presidential Elections are about the future, not the past. In what way does he satisfy the clear yearning for change in America - other than the fact that he is NOT Bush?
Thirdly, he represents a uniting of the Republican party against the Evangelicals, who at one point threatened, in the shape of Huckabee, to take over the GOP. The Evangelicals are very welcome to provide their numbers, enthusiasm, and money to the party, but most Republicans have recoiled from having a Creationist run the country. However this also means that McCain represents a very uneasy compromise who is not enthusiastically endorsed either by the moral, fiscal, security `conservatives in the party. They could have a real problem mobilising their base, come November, and having independent support is all very well provided they actual come out and vote in real numbers. Obama could draw from that same pool.
All of which brings me to the Democrats. There is an argument for saying that their establishment candidate, "Billiary Clinton", and the Democratic congress have failed to arouse much broad based popular support not because they have failed to offer an alternative to Bushrepublicanism, but because they have not offered enough of a change.
Obama got into real trouble when he conceded Karl Rove's first point above, that the Republican party under Reagan was the party of ideas in the 1980's, and that it was time the Democrats articulated a real alternative. He was touching on the real vacuity at the heart of the Clinton rhetoric - that it is an argument about competence and experience - i.e. doing more or less the same things, only doing them better, and that Clinton does not offer a real break with the past as Reagan had done.
The very emotionalism of the Clintonista reaction, much like the comments on Karl Rove's article which declared that they would refuse to even read what he had written, is a cover up of their lack of a coherent set of ideas and programmes which represent a revolutionary change from what has been happening for the past 28 years.
Clinton is the Carter 1980 candidate, with some decent liberal credentials but offering no real change from a model that is increasingly being seen to fail. Obama is the Reagan 1980 candidate, offering a more radical break from the past. But does his platform stand up to closer scrutiny and does it really represent a radical shift and a coherent set of new ideas? Much of the commentary here and elsewhere has focused on the candidates personalities and political tactics. It is time their actual policy programmes were subjected to closer scrutiny. Time for the policy wonks to have their say.