McCain and the New Opposition
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/11/mccain.jpgSen. John McCain's defeat opens the door to new GOP leaders. (wdcpix)
In the aftermath of defeat, with the arc lamps having dimmed on the presidential candidacy of Sen. John McCain, one thing is clear: the Republican Party as we have known it — strong, disciplined and precise in its execution since Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 — will cease to exist beginning today.
During the course of this long campaign, even some of the most fervent GOP boosters found themselves running for cover, bracing for losses of a kind that haven’t been seen in a generation. With big gains in the House and Senate, Democrats have something approaching effective control on Capitol Hill. After most of the final tallies late Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has a stronger majority, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has 56 of the 60 votes needed to assure passage of Democratic bills.
What the Republicans now face is something akin to an all-out blame-brawl, with finger-pointing, nail-gouging and yelling in closed rooms and in the most public of squares. All in the pursuit of answers to two basic questions: How on Earth did Sen. Barack Obama achieve the greatest Democratic victory since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964? And, more important, what do we do next?
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
“I don’t hold McCain responsible,” said Republican strategist Tony Marsh, when we spoke on the phone late last week. “I think McCain ran a reasonably good campaign, given the environment. It’s a perfect storm.”
Marsh, usually optimistic about his party, says the Republican collapse has been several years in the making. The party’s brand, forged in the late 1970s and early 1980s with a coalition of social conservatives, small-government devotees and national-security hawks, was tied to a single goal: the destruction of communism. With the fall of the red menace, the foundation of the coalition began to weaken, ultimately buckling in the 2006 congressional elections.
“What we should have done then is to invest a great deal of money, to talk to these groups about the new challenges in the new era, this post-Cold War era, and what’s the agenda Republicans should stand for,” Marsh said. “Instead we became a party obsessed with winning elections and maintaining power. We became a party concerned more about tactics. And in the process, we got fat, dumb and lazy.
“Rather than articulate a positive vision for the future,” Marsh continued, “we started defining ourselves by what we’re not. What we’re not is big-spending, big-taxing Democrats who want to grow the federal government. That might work for a while. But at some point, you have to give some reason for people to love you — other than the fact that you’re not the other guys.”
But despite the fall of its enemy, the GOP did hold together. It controlled the House and Senate for 12 years more years, even took the White House. But what one saw in the waning years of the Bush administration was poor leadership, from the top down.
With an economy in smoldering ashes, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have no clear end, the federal government expanding its powers in ways not seen since the Great Depression, Republicans across the country have been left searching for the soul of its own machine.
Now, the Republicans will have to become the opposition party, led by people whose names we’ve yet to learn, as it searches to redefine itself for Americans.
“It’s not like there are 10 guys at a dinner table — smoking cigars, drinking brandy, deciding what to do,” said Ed Rollins, the Republican strategist who served as political director in the Reagan White House and national campaign director for Reagan’s 1984 reelection run.
“What we have to do is rethink our whole party,” continued Rollins. “Look at what the other party has done in exploring new technologies and exciting young people. The one thing Reagan did was to build a base of real enthusiasm among young people, so you had a whole age of Reaganites. The one thing you learn is: with a sports team, you can’t maintain success without building a farm team.
“Unlike the Democrats, where you had people like John Dingell and Henry Waxman willing to stay on because they cared so much about the issues and were willing to let their party battle it out,” Rollins added, “there are some more senior [Republicans] who won’t be willing to stay around. The fact is, we don’t control our own destiny. We are now the opposition party and, as such, we can’t just throw rocks against the window. Right now, I don’t see anyone new in the House or the Senate or on the governor level — with perhaps the exception of Sarah Palin — who can lead in this rebuilding.
But Rollins has been through this sort of thing before. “I went through Watergate” he said, “and I thought we’d never win another election — and then came 1980. When Bill Clinton won, I thought we’d be totally locked out. And then [the Democrats] overstepped their bounds, and in 1994 we took control of the House and the Senate.”
But the times alone pose a problem for the reinvention of the GOP. A majority of Americans could see President-elect Obama as a man who, like Franklin D. Roosevelt before him, could lead the country out of a desperate hour. Obama could have the power to affect the domestic landscape like no one since LBJ.
As the opposition party, what can the GOP hope to represent? Does the party risk looking like the stone gargoyles of Gotham City, ready to come to life at the first misstep by Democrats? The party whose driving philosophy is to step in when something goes wrong and say, “I told you so?”
What will be the true Republican self? Will it turn more conservative and look to rebuild the coalition of foot soldiers that spawned the Reagan revolution? Or will it, at long last, reach out to the center and attract new allies and new partners in a spirit of cooperation, to make it the forward-looking party that Republicans have called for since the end of the Cold War?
“I always thought the Democrats were done in by the fact they made modest gains in 1982,” said Lou Cannon, the Reagan biographer, “because it encouraged them to run the way more of the working-class party, to turn more left. In part, the Republicans’ next move is going to be determined by which Republicans survive. If the sweep is so extensive, or deep, it’s harder to argue that you have to go more to the right in order to recover the majority. I think it’s going to take time to play out. And I have a feeling we’re going to be talking about Republican candidates for president whose names we don’t even know yet.”
No one likes to lose. Just ask fans of the Cincinnati Bengals this season. But losing does present opportunities. It represents a chance to start again, to build something out of lessons learned and mistakes made. It provides the opportunity for new people to begin to mold the party in ways that senior leadership had resisted.
And it opens up the opportunity for rebirth. It was the Eisenhower era that gave way to John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and the great social programs and advancements that allowed Obama to win the presidency. The failures of the Carter administration allowed the GOP to rise from the shadows that had enveloped it after Watergate and restore “Morning in America.” For Republicans who’ve felt constrained by the hulking outer shell of the past, their time might well be now.
“There’s going to be a tremendous opportunity for new leadership,” said former Bush administration adviser Leslie Sanchez. “There will be new ideas and new leadership. It’s a healthy thing for our party. Believe me, especially for the younger folks, we’re definitely longing for it.”
Being out of power will also allow the Republicans to lick their wounds, to heal after the events of the past eight years. When you’re in power and things don’t go as planned, you get blamed. Being out of power means having the ability to marshal new forces while presenting a real alternative to those in control.
“We’re going to be a party with a real opportunity going into 2010,” said Sarah Taylor, the former Bush White House political director. “You’re not owning every mistake that occurs. I don’t buy the notion that the party lost its way and its core values. I think a series of things — including a tough war and bankrupt leaders — certainly hurt us.
“But not governing has its advantage. Because the state of Louisiana couldn’t handle a hurricane, the president and the party took the brunt of the blame. Now with the other side having total control, they’ll take the brunt. We have the chance to be tighter, more cohesive, and the chance to re-message ourselves.”
In the coming days and months, the neuroses of the GOP will be taxed as its most ardent boosters begin to question how things went so wrong. But in its wake, the struggle for the soul of the party will have begun.
It should not run from the opportunity to turn to new leaders and new coalitions. In a matter of months, we might not recognize the face of the GOP.
Whether the American public will look kindly on that new face remains to be seen.