If you don’t want to read uninformed, pointless speculation on the future of the Republican Party, skip this post…
Let me start off by saying that, while the Specter defection does create certain problems for the Democrats in 2010, it indicates much larger problems for the Republicans. Specter, for the Republicans, is not a case of addition by subtraction. He’s certainly an opportunist, but political parties in the United States and elsewhere require the services of opportunists in order to survive and prosper. When the opportunists start jumping ship, it indicates serious problems.
There’s no question that the media oversells the notion that particular elections spell doom for one party or another; we all remember claims about how the 2002 and 2004 elections spelled the end for the Democrats, meant that they would have to fundamentally restructure their approach to politics, and so on and so forth. The party system of the United States rarely restructures itself in a grand way; the New Deal simply reoriented the party coalitions that already existed, and the Reagan Revolution failed to do even that.
That said, political parties do die. They don’t die often, but even in the United States they sometimes go belly up. I think that the Republican Party has become stuck in an ideological and demographic trap of its own making, and I’m not sure that it understands the seriousness of the situation. It’s Congressional deficit is greater than any that the Democrats have faced since 1931. It’s struggling to maintain its share of a part of the electorate that is steadily shrinking, and it has failed to make serious inroads into any other demographic. Indeed, the GOP core is actively hostile to Latino Catholics, the one part of the electorate that might have the most sympathy with its ideological principles. Moreover, the intellectual structure that undergirds the GOP is both strikingly inept and deeply resistant to change. As Erik puts it,
The Republican Party reminds me of a perverse version of Students for a Democratic Society circa 1969: a once influential and powerful organization falling apart over issues of ideology with each era of leadership demanding increasing radical ideological purity and purging those who do not follow the party line with proper rigor.
The US electoral system favors broad based coalition parties, while governance in the US and everywhere else favors ideologically cohesive parties. Karl Rove’s 50%+1 strategy was a recognition of the contradiction between the former and the latter; parties that can win large majorities are forced to compromise in ways that make governance difficult. Rove’s goal wasn’t to re-create the vast Democratic Congressional majorities that prevailed from 1932-1994, but rather to create a party just large enough to win without making sacrifices on core issues. It ssems to me that this strategy has failed for two reasons, one practical and one theoretical. The practical reason is that the ideological planks that undergird the Republican coalition are disastrous when actually effected into policy. The theoretical reason is that electoral politics include much ebb and flow; the 50%+1 coalition that prevails in one cycle is much different than the 50%+1 coalition that can prevail two years later. The glory (and frustration) of an ideologically diffuse coalition party in the American system is that the Democrat running for election in Alabama can make a much different set of promises than the Democrat running in Vermont. The manner in which the Republicans have created and maintained ideological coherence has made it extremely difficult for the GOP to retain the flexibility demanded by electoral pressure and everyday governance.
It’s also worth noting that the idea of the GOP as a quasi-permanent minority party isn’t crazy. By 2010, the Republicans will have controlled the Senate for 20 of the last 78 years, and the House of Representatives for 16 of 78. In these terms, the GOP is less becoming a minority party than returning to minority party status after a brief moment in the sun. That doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, because the ideological coalitions that underpin the two parties are much different today than they were in 1932. Nevertheless, the idea that the GOP might become a permanent minority party, congressionally uncompetitive in vast swaths of the United States, isn’t particularly new. This is not the worst position that the GOP has faced; it trailed by 26 Senate seats and 155 Representatives in 1967. Moreover, in spite of the all the difficulties associated with the contradictions in the coalition (tensions which were much greater than those within the coalition today), the Democrats achieved marvelous things between 1932 and 1994; they essentially created the modern American welfare state, which the Republicans have been unable to destroy. It’s unclear to me that it would have been easier to build the New Deal and Great Society if a substantial part of the coalition had been exiled to the GOP.
My wager is this; the GOP is lose several Senate seats (although perhaps not House seats) in 2010, and is going to get crushed by an incumbent Obama in 2012. The primary fight is going to be bloody, between a traditional establishment type (Romney) and a populist type (Palin or Huckabee). After 2012, the establishment is going to retake control of the asylum, and we’ll see the GOP begin to build a new electoral coalition. It’s almost inevitable that the GOP will see congressional gains in 2014, and I suspect it will field a competitive Presidential candidate in 2016. I suspect it will be harder, however, to expand the GOP’s congressional reach beyond its base in the old Confederacy, and that the first half of the 21st century will look a lot more like 1932-1994 than post-Gingrich.