The Incredible Shrinking GOP
November 29, 2006
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success (John Wiley & Sons). The views expressed here are his own.
There were many things Democrats did right in the months leading to the 2006 election. But one outcome of the voting—whether it occurred by accident or design—will yield dividends for years and even decades to come. On November 7, the GOP’s moderate wing, already in decline, was eviscerated.
For all the attention given to those few conservative Democrats who got elected, in fact the new Democratic caucus will look pretty much exactly like the old one—albeit a bit larger: mostly strong progressives, with a substantial group of moderates and even a few outright conservatives who represent Republican-leaning districts. The party that really changed was the GOP.
One way to look at the 2006 election is as a continuation of the evolution of the Republican Party that began in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1990s. After Lyndon Johnson made Democrats the party of civil rights, a grand exodus occurred among conservative Southerners from their traditional home in the Democratic Party to their ideological home in the GOP. As a consequence, the power center among Republicans migrated southward. It was in the 1990s that Southerners finally took over the GOP leadership, as Robert Michel of Illinois and Bob Dole of Kansas were replaced by Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Trent Lott of Mississippi. (It should surprise no one that Republican senators put aside their squeamishness about those who pine for the days of Jim Crow to bring Lott back into the leadership.)
And today, the Republican Party is firmly dominated by its Southern, socially conservative wing. Try to find a representative of the once-powerful “Rockefeller Republicans”—they’re an endangered species. Indeed, there is only one Republican Congressman left in all of New England. It was the Republican moderates who lost, not just in the Northeast, but across the country. Defeated figures like Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island and Jim Leach of Iowa will soon be fading memories of a time gone by.
One of the key benefits of this turn of events is that Democrats should have a relatively easy time defending the majority they just seized. As the Washington Post noted this past Sunday, only a few of the House seats Republicans lost look like prime targets for 2008. For instance, President Bush won 65 percent of the vote in Tom DeLay’s old district, which went Democratic in no small part due to the combination of DeLay’s corruption and the fact that the Republican nominee was forced to run as a write-in candidate. While the newly elected Congressman, Nick Lampson, is a well-known figure, he will have to fight tooth and nail to retain that seat every two years given the nature of his district.
Contrast that with, for instance, the seat Democrats took in Connecticut from moderate Republican Rob Simmons. George W. Bush won 40 percent of the vote in Simmons’ district in 2000, and 44 percent in 2004; while it may not be Berkeley or Harlem, Democrats have a comfortable edge in Connecticut’s 2nd district. It would be a surprise if the Republicans put in more than a token effort to win back this seat in the near future. That frees Democrats to invest resources putting more Republicans on the defensive. While they won a few seats, like Lampson’s, in Republican areas, most of the Democratic victories occurred in far more friendly territory.
But the most important result of the shift that took place is symbolic. The election shrank the Republican Party, both geographically and ideologically. Their identity will continue to be defined by their most socially conservative, Southern members, who will oppose popular initiatives like increasing the minimum wage and fight unending battles on hot-button social issues in which they inevitably alienate large swaths of voters who call themselves “moderate” but think like progressives.
In furthering that alienation, the hardest of hard-right conservatives are the Democrats’ best friend. It’s all well and good to celebrate the defeat of Rick Santorum, but it would actually serve Democrats’ long-term interests far more to find a way to defeat his Pennsylvania colleague Arlen Specter when he comes up for re-election. Moderates like Specter put a mainstream face on the GOP; Santorum, on the other hand, convinced voters that Republicans are nuts every time he went on a tirade about “man on dog” sex. By targeting Republican moderates, Democrats can not only win territory that will be easier to hold, they can help define their opponents by their most unpalatable members.
Democrats now control not only the left, but the center as well. Yet they are being scolded with the same tired clichés they’ve heard before, that they need to move to the right in order to maintain a majority. They need to ignore the pleas from the David Broders and Joe Kleins of the world and keep in mind that in the recent election, voters repudiated conservatism itself. Even before the election, some conservatives were complaining that the Bush administration wasn’t really conservative at all. Yet with the exception of reducing the size of government, conservatives can’t claim that they didn’t get what they were after over the past six years. Republicans cut taxes, boosted defense and advanced conservative beliefs on social issues—and when they promised more of the same, voters said, no thanks.
Those conservatives now seeking to distance themselves from the Bush administration’s failures need to be honest about the record of the last six years. The single highest priority for conservatives in recent years—tax cuts—was enacted with a vengeance. What’s more, those cuts were aimed at those conservatives love to laud for their ability to “create jobs”—corporations and the wealthy. We saw cuts in income taxes, particularly at the high end, cuts in capital gains taxes and cuts in estate taxes. In turn, we saw record corporate profits and an increasing concentration of wealth at the very top.
In foreign policy, conservatives also got what they wanted from the Bush administration. Defense spending ballooned to the point where we now spend nearly as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. Conservatives got the war on Iraq they had been advocating for years. The Bush administration could hardly have been more bellicose if it had tried.
When it comes to “traditional values,” conservatives also have no reason to complain. President Bush nominated extremely conservative judges, advocated bans on same-sex marriage, directed money to religious organizations and spoke out in favor of “intelligent design,” all with the help of congressional Republicans. The low point for the Republican Congress came over the issue of Terri Schiavo, when they acted in accord with their conservative beliefs—and the public was appalled.
There were a number of critical events between the 2004 and 2006 elections—the Democrats’ successfully beating back Bush’s plan to partially privatize Social Security, the resignation of Tom DeLay, the arrest of Duke Cunningham and the Mark Foley scandal among them. But Terri Schiavo is the one that will live on, the one that laid bare the true face of today’s GOP. In response, independents and many libertarian conservatives were disgusted. The party that claimed it would “get government off your back” was reaching one hand into your bedroom and the other into your hospital room.
It is the Terri Schiavo Republicans that voters in the interior West, the Southwest—and indeed, everywhere but the Deep South—are turning away from. Their kind of politics hurts the GOP among nearly every voting bloc that will be key to success in upcoming elections. If the Democrats can succeed in furthering the GOP’s ideological and geographic isolation, they can send them into a vicious spiral of defeat, where they have to keep feeding their socially conservative, Southern base in order to avoid total annihilation, but their efforts to do so end up harming them in every other region of the country. That’s what it will take to make this victory last past the next election.