A true patriot, I have always felt, is harder on his own nation than any other because he expects better of it. In the same way, I've spent a lot more time lately criticizing the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party than the Republicans, because they are our only hope. Yet the dynamics of the Republican primary campaign and their attempt to regain power are extremely interesting, and certainly worth some reflection. Here are my thoughts.
Beginning in the 1980s, really, younger Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, began preparing for the coming crisis, even though Strauss and Howe had not yet uncovered the generational rhythm of American life. They began preparing for transformation and war: a war upon government at all levels, and on nearly all the achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society. To fight that war, they recruited every ally they could, beginning back in the late 1960s with southern whites angry at integration and adding religious conservatives to the mix in the 1970s and 1980s. They built their strategy on relentless attack. When Bill Clinton came to power determined to reform health care, they were determined to prove the federal government could not tackle such a task, and they did. They took advantage of unfortunate new customs in American political life--specifically, detailed attention to politicians' personal lives--to harass Clinton for eight years, and even to impeach him. And they won the election in 2000 by purging the Florida voting rolls before the election and using the Supreme Court (and taking advantage of Al Gore's foolish tactics) to prevent a Florida recount. Then came eight years of George W. Bush, who overturned a half century of American foreign policy, crippled the financial position of the federal government, and involved us in a decade of war in the Middle East that seems likely to come to a close without any significant positive results. Because Bush did nothing about the consequences of deregulation, but only made them worse, the economic crisis of his last year in office was, and has been, disastrous. It left the Republicans with no hope in the election of 2008.
Like Richard Nixon in an earlier era, Bush seems to have been the last of his generation of Republicans who could unite the various strains of his coalition. Mitt Romney, a genuine moderate in the 1990s, has had to pander shamelessly to the right on both economic and social issues to have a chance at the nomination, and now he faces new obstacles in the face of Santorum's resurgence. Santorum is either going to lose the nomination race or go down to a dreadful defeat in the November election because the social issues on which he takes such an extreme position have become a loser for the Republicans across most of the country. Gingrich simply has too much baggage. The Republicans have handicapped themselves, perhaps fatally, because anyone who wants their nomination needs to take positions on various issues which the vast majority of well-educated Americans will never accept. In addition, they are depending--as no less a figure than Ann Coulter pointed out to the CPAC convention the other day--on the premise that their absolute hatred of Barack Obama is shared by at least half the population--and it isn't. This is not all. The Republicans are seriously handicapped on economic issues as well because the Tea Party insists on such extreme positions, and because, in one way or another, they are all hypocrites. Romney has repudiated all his earlier moderation, and he is deeply implicated in the economic practices that have cost millions of Americans good jobs. Gingrich has made millions from Fannie, Freddy, and insurance companies. Santorum, who claims the highest moral stature, built up support with earmarks during his Senatorial career and lived off the accumulated good will after he was defeated six years ago. And ironically, the Republicans are paying the price for Citizens' United in their primaries, deluging each other with negative ads paid for by billionaires. No inspiring candidate is going to emerge from this process.
Last year's budget process was a nightmare, but this year's, I am quite sure, will be much worse. There will be no more pretense of reaching a grand bargain: the President now plans to ask for higher taxes and more spending to boost employment, and the Republicans will try to make more cuts. I suspect, once again, that this will ultimately benefit the President. Meanwhile, he has been quick to retreat from any exposed positions on social issues. I was disappointed that he felt he had to compromise on the contraception issue last week, but the compromise won't do any harm from a policy standpoint, and "religious freedom" is a good wedge issue for the Republicans, even though even a majority of Catholics supported Obama on the issue at hand.
The Republicans, ironically,find themselves in a position similar to Republicans in the post-civil war era. Like the radicals of that era who wanted genuine racial equality in the South but eventually had to give up the battle in 1876, these Republicans may well have pushed issues like religious values in public life and cutting government spending about as far as they are likely to go. (I hope readers will not be offended by this analogy: I certainly approve of the goals of the Radical Republicans of the 1860s-1870s and not of today's, but the parallel is about their degree of success.) Today's Republicans also pushed us into a long war, but it engaged only a tiny percentage of the country directly, it has not ended in any kind of memorable victory, and it can't be used, like the Civil War, as a rallying cry. Nor did it produce a Republican war hero like U.S. Grant who could have unified the party and won a couple of elections. And like those Republicans, these ones never disposed of an overwhelming national majority at the polls. The only real popular landslide won by the Civil War Republicans took place in Grant's second campaign in 1872, when the opposition was hopelessly split and weak. The Republicans are trying now to rely on the same trope that they did then: that the Democrats (especially, this time, Barack Obama) are un-American, subversive, and treacherous. By the middle of the Grant Administration those views had lost their power over northern voters. Then as now, however, although both parties belonged to corporate interests, the Republicans had a closer alliance with them.
The economy, of course, remains the critical issue in the election. The last round of job numbers were very encouraging, with new hiring more than offsetting the normal post-holiday layoffs and showing a large seasonably adjusted gain. I still believe the entire industrial heartland will be a difficult battleground, but Barack Obama will have important achievements to point to. The auto industry bailout succeeded, but the Republican candidate will have to attack it. In short, the odds are shifting towards the possibility that Barack Obama, a moderate and reasonable man, will in fact be re-elected. I would be very surprised, however, if the Democrats regained the House of Representatives, and they certainly don't have much change of increasing their majority in the Senate and could lose it altogether.
Obama's re-election will at least prevent the onslaught on government from going too much further. And I must note the possibility that he has done more good than it looks on economic issues. A long-time friend and regular reader sent me this link to a story in New York Magazine, suggesting that Dodd-Frank is already having a very significant effect on the financial community. I think that remains to be seen, but it is possible. I still don't think any new New Deal is in prospect, but if in fact we can avoid another bubble, that will be a step forward. The real process of rebuilding the U.S. economy, however, has not begun.Our politics have become increasingly anarchic over the last 40 years, and recent campaign financing changes will continue the trend. We are not on the verge of the kind of consensus the country enjoyed from about 1953 to 1965, or from 1801 to about 1825. Indeed, I am not sure I shall live to see anything like that again, even if, like my Missionary generation counterpart W. E. B. Dubois (1868-1963), I can live to 95. But if the radical Republicans who have driven our politics relentlessly to the right can now burn themselves out, there will be more hope for the immediate future. This has not however been destined to be a great era of American political achievement.
Postscript, February 12: This extremely interesting story from today's New York Times introduces a new element into the election. It interviews a number of people from Chicago County, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis, most of them conservative activists. But the real point of the article is that the federal government is now supporting a huge segment of the lower middle class, mainly through the earned income tax credit, which is now available to people who make nearly $50,000 a year, depending on their overall picture. It began as a way to let the poorest wage-earners keep more of their money but it has expanded a lot. (Remember, these people are paying payroll taxes.) This may in fact be a big part of the reason that federal income tax rates have plummeted so dramatically in recent years, something I have noted on my blog but I haven't been able to explain.What is remarkable is that most of the people they interview oppose tax increases for anyone and favor government spending cuts. Many claim they don't want the benefits they are getting (although they do want Social Security and Medicare.) These people were the backbone of their local Tea Party and they turned out a 36-year Democratic Congressman last fall.This is a dynamic to watch. If in fact it is widespread, it could make things very difficult for Obama all across the rust belt.
Some weeks ago blooger.com switched to a new interface. To my horror I just discovered that it does not show paragraph breaks in posts, and there does not seem to be any way to fix this. I have just switched back to the old one and will try to fix the problem in any other posts. Sorry.