The Strange Death of Republican America

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From the
introduction to The
Strange Death of Republican America: Chronicles of a Collapsing
Party,
published by Union Square Press.

George
W. Bush’s second term has witnessed the great unraveling of the
Republican coalition. After nearly two generations of political
dominance, the Republican coalition has rapidly disintegrated under
the stress of Bush’s failures and the Republicans’ scandals and
disgrace. The Democrats have the greatest possible opening in more
than a generation — potentially. They should pay strict attention
to how Bush has swiftly undone Republican strengths as an object
lesson.

On September
10, 2001, Bush was at the lowest point in public approval of any
president that early in his term. It was a sign that he seemed destined
to join the list of previous presidents who had gained the office
without popular majorities and served only one term. After the terrorist
attacks of September 11, Bush’s fortunes were reversed, and he was
no longer seen as drifting but masterful. Now he appeared to take
his place in the long line of Republican presidents who had preceded
him. He acted as though his astronomical popularity in the aftermath
of September 11 ratified whatever radical course he might take in
international affairs and vindicated whatever radical policies and
politics he might follow at home.

Vice President
Dick Cheney assumed control of concentrating unfettered executive
power, a project to which he had been devoted since he had served
as the assistant to presidential counselor Donald Rumsfeld in the
Nixon White House. Karl Rove, the president’s chief political strategist,
took charge of subordinating federal departments and agencies to
the larger political goal of achieving a permanent Republican realignment
through a one party state — another Nixonian objective, run by another
Nixonian. Cheney and Rove’s complementary efforts gave the substance
to the radical theory of the “unitary executive.”

In 2004, Bush
swaggered through his reelection campaign, still swept along on
the momentum from September 11. After the reelection victory, Rove’s
former political deputy and Republican National Committee chairman
Ken Mehlman said, “If there’s one empire I want built, it’s the
George Bush empire.”

Perhaps the
most considered, comprehensive and boldest analysis after the 2004
election came from two English journalists, writers for The
Economist magazine, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.
In their book, The
Right Nation
, they conflated Bush’s unilateralism, the
religious right, and the conservative counter-establishment of think
tanks and foundations with American exceptionalism. “Today, thanks
in large part to the strength of the Right Nation, American exceptionalism
is reasserting itself with a vengeance.”

They categorically
declared that the realignment Rove was seeking had at last appeared.
Bush’s reelection was the crowning moment of the entire Republican
era, setting it on a firm foundation for a generation to come. “Who
would have imagined that the 2004 presidential election would represent
something of a last chance for the Democrats?” they wrote. “But
conservatism’s progress goes much deeper than the gains that the
Republican Party has made over the past half century or the steady
decline in Democratic registration. The Right clearly has ideology
momentum on its side in much the same way that the Left had momentum
in the 1960s.”

The Economist’s
correspondents were Tories in search of a promised land after the
Labour Party became the natural party of government in Britain with
the post-Thatcher crackup of the Conservatives. The United States
was a fantastic canvas for their thwarted dreams. They were delirious
to discover that while conservatism had fallen from grace and favor
in Britain it held every lever of national power in the New World.
“Thatcher could never rely on a vibrant conservative movement to
support her (unless you regard a couple of think tanks as a movement)
while American conservatism has been going from strength to strength
for decades,” they wrote with undisguised envy.

At least in
one way the Republican triumph in 2004 echoed British political
history, resembling that of the British Liberal Party in 1910. “From
that victory they never recovered,” wrote George Dangerfield in
The
Strange Death of Liberal England
. But the strange death
of Republican America, the supposed “Right Nation,” cannot be attributed
to the same reasons as the decline of Liberal England, a complacent
faith of good intentions bypassed and trampled by events that it
presumed to understand as it drifted into the dark passage of world
war.

The guiding
assumption of American politics was that Bush’s presidency was girded
by a stable conservative consensus and that politics would operate
on this consensus into the foreseeable future. In this view, Bush
became not only the most recent expression of Republican supremacy
but also its strongest. It was a curious refraction of the consensus
school of the 1950s that envisioned American politics as an unbroken
thread of liberalism.

According to
the consensus school, the dissimilarities between American and European
politics — ravaged in the 20th century by wars and totalitarian
movements — suggested an essential consensus predating the creation
of the nation rooted in the thought of John Locke. “The American
community is a liberal community,” wrote the historian Louis Hartz
in his highly influential The
Liberal Tradition in America
, published in 1955. That same
year, William F. Buckley, Jr., launching the modern conservative
movement in the first issue of National Review, wrote that
conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” By 2004, after
Bush’s victory, conservatives were triumphalist. “The 2004 election
was about as clear a vindication as we could have hoped for,” wrote
Micklethwait and Wooldridge. And “that conservatism is the dominant
force in American politics and that conservatism explains why America
is different.” Turning the old consensus thesis on its head, they
argued that the American community is a conservative community.

For long periods
of time political alignments shift incrementally and slowly. But
our politics also has a volatile history, not always placid, erupting
suddenly and sharply through cataclysms, and often as a result of
violence. The Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Vietnam War
and the civil rights revolution were earthquakes that abruptly overturned
long-settled arrangements. When Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928,
his landslide victory was universally seen as the peak of Republican
Party consolidation, the culmination of the party’s progress since
the Civil War. Similarly, when Lyndon Johnson was elected in 1964,
his landslide was interpreted as the apotheosis of the New Deal.
For two generations the Republicans have been running on the themes
and infrastructure developed since the Democratic collapse in 1968.

The scale of
the Bush disaster is larger than any cataclysm since then. Whether
or not there is a powerful geopolitical analogy between Iraq and
Vietnam wars, as Bush first insistently denied, then vehemently
argued, there is a pertinent domestic political analogy. Vietnam
ended a Democratic era as definitively as Iraq is closing a Republican
one.

Republicanism
at its pinnacle — during the Reagan years — had been an easy identity
for adherents to wear. With the recession of 1982 a memory, tax
rates especially for the wealthy drastically lowered, and the country
at peace amid the Cold War, President Reagan demanded no sacrifice
or pain. His carefree attitude disdained the Protestant ethic, with
banker’s hours that conveyed there was no relationship between hard
work and reward. His sunny disposition had removed the scowl of
Richard Nixon and the stain of Watergate from the party. Yet Reagan’s
landslide of 49 states in 1984 echoed Nixon’s landslide of 49 states
in 1972. One famous victory was built on the other, one Californian
paving the way for another. Nixon’s work of realignment as well
as his self-destruction made possible the rise of Reagan, who had
been his rival for the Republican nomination in 1968.

Conservatives
prefer to date the origins of the Republican ascent to the candidacy
of Barry Goldwater in 1964. But it was his defeat followed by the
shattering of the Johnson presidency over Vietnam that cleared the
path for the resurrection of Richard Nixon, who was the main progenitor
of the Republican rise. Only on the ruins of the Goldwater debacle
was Nixon able to capture the Republican nomination in 1968. He
was the author of the project for an imperial presidency. Watergate,
a concatenation of plots, was an emanation of that grand design,
both to create an unaccountable executive and harness the federal
government into a political machine for what Nixon first called
a “New Majority.” The 1974 Final Report of the Select Committee
on Presidential Campaign Activities documented the Senate Watergate
Committee’s investigation into Nixon’s effort to use “the powers
of incumbency” through programs such as “the Responsiveness Program,”
created to “redirect Federal moneys to specific administration supporters
and to target groups and geographic areas to benefit” his campaign.

If Nixon had
succeeded in his plan, the U.S. government and politics would have
taken very different forms. But his resignation shattered the center
in the Republican Party, and Nixon made possible not only Jimmy
Carter but also Ronald Reagan. The traditional Republican center
attempted to hold under Gerald Ford, but it could not cohere, even
within Ford’s own White House where it was undermined by the team
of his successive chiefs of staff, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

The Republican
fall parallels the previous decline of the Democrats. From 1968
through 1988, the story of the Democratic Party had been its internal
disintegration and reduction to its base.

The Republican
Party dominance was not illusory, mere smoke and mirrors, though
it did have superior image-making too. After the enfranchisement
of black voters in the South in the mid-1960s, whites deserted the
Democratic Party and flocked to the Republican Party, eventually
creating a GOP Solid South, as Lyndon Johnson had feared when he
told his youthful press secretary Bill Moyers upon signing civil
rights legislation, “We have lost the South for a generation.” The
Republicans turned many urban and suburban ethnic Catholics, who
had been at the core of the New Deal, into Republicans, by exploiting
strategies around issues of crime, education, taxation, and housing
and by appealing to cultural traditionalism on issues such as abortion
and women’s rights generally.

The Republicans
also won over formerly progressive Western states, through an anti-government
states rights Sagebrush rebellion on behalf of local extractive
industries. Running for governor in 1966, Reagan tipped California,
which had been balanced for decades between liberal Democrats and
liberal Republicans, toward the conservative wing of his party.
The movement of California into the Republican column signaled the
shift of geopolitical equilibrium to the Sun Belt, a new alliance
of West and South, and consolidated the Republican Party coalition.

Kevin Phillips,
a strategist for the Nixon campaign in 1968, wrote in his seminal
book, The
Emerging Republican Majority
(published the following year),
that Nixon’s victory “bespoke the end of the New Deal Democratic
hegemony and the beginning of a new era in American politics…. Today
the interrelated Negro, suburban and Sun Belt migrations have all
but destroyed the New Deal coalition.” Phillips described how the
alignment of the Democratic Party with civil rights (“many Negro
demands”) provoked a reaction. “The South, the West and the Catholic
sidewalks of New York were the focal points of conservative opposition
to the welfare liberalism of the federal government…”

Even as he
planned to wind down the Vietnam War, Nixon painted antiwar critics
and Democrats as unpatriotic and hostile to national security, and
for decades the Democrats could not escape the stigma. In defense
of his Vietnam policy, Nixon conjured up a “Silent Majority” in
opposition to the antiwar movement. This constituency, transmuted
a decade later into the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” included many
of the same former Democrats that had defected to Nixon’s banner.
A complex of domestic and foreign policy motives drove them: resentment
against liberal elites and minorities over social welfare policy;
antagonism to the youthful university-based counterculture undermining
traditionalism; and liberal softness against Communism supposedly
weakening the will to win in Vietnam.

None of these
themes, including the anti-Communist one, lost their vitality even
after the end of the Vietnam War. Nixon’s resignation over Watergate
gave the Democrats an opening, but Jimmy Carter’s presidency proved
a spectacle of Democratic infighting and provided the Republican
right the chance to seize control of the party in 1980 by running
on an agenda against economic mismanagement and Soviet adventurism.
By now conservatism was transformed from a cranky backward looking
isolationist fringe into a vigorous, politically skillful movement
that had captured and held the commanding heights of the Republican
Party.

In 1984, the
Democrats nominated Carter’s vice president, who, unfairly or not,
bore the burden of past ineptitude, to compete with Reagan at a
time of peace and prosperity. By August 1984, Gallup found that
on the question of “increasing respect for the U.S. overseas,” Reagan
led Walter Mondale 48 to 33 percent. Reagan’s reelection affirmed
the Republican era, its national coalition and lock on the presidency.

The Republicans
were the dominant political party, even when the parties appeared
momentarily and evenly matched in public opinion or when the Democrats
controlled one or both houses of the Congress. Democrats invariably
bore the burden of defending themselves from past errors, real or
imagined, and on positions from gun control to abortion Republicans
used “wedge issues” to splinter the Democratic coalition and fuse
the Republican one.

The political
career of George H.W. Bush illustrated the contradictions of Republicanism
and the growing radicalism of the party that his son would later
push to an extreme. His difficulties reflect the radicalization
of the party going back to 1964 and his circuitous route in navigating
its currents. As much as he was overwhelmed by events, the elder
Bush was also undermined by his inability to sustain a viable Republican
center post-Reagan. For every gesture he made toward fiscal prudence,
a traditional Republican virtue, his party punished him.

The principal
lesson the son absorbed from his father’s political failure was
to avoid having enemies on the right. George W. Bush became what
his father never could, a radical conservative, transcending the
problems that had plagued the father throughout his career. The
son systematically abandoned the father’s respect for fiscal responsibility,
individual rights, the separation of church and state, the Congress,
constitutional checks and balances, and a realistic and bipartisan
foreign policy. George W. Bush saw Reagan more than his father as
his model, but he was as little like Reagan as he was like his father.
Bush’s radicalism has provided a vantage point for historical revisionism,
causing his Republican predecessors, judged to be avatars of conservatism
in their day, as more moderate in perspective. Reagan’s pragmatic
willingness to negotiate with congressional Democrats on such matters
as Social Security, for example, takes on another aspect. But the
inexorable movement to the right is inarguable as a historical pattern.

Every time
the Republican period seemed to be exhausted it gained new impetus
through openings created by Democratic fractiousness and incompetence
in politics and governing. With each cycle conservatism reemerged
more radicalized — a steady march further to the right. After Nixon’s
disgrace in Watergate came Reagan; after the conservative crackup
that engulfed George H.W. Bush came the radical Congress elected
in 1994, led by Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay; and then came George
W. Bush. Bill Clinton’s presidency served as an interregnum that
might have broken the Republican era for good had his vice president
Al Gore been permitted to assume the office he won by a popular
majority. But the conservative bloc on the Supreme Court ultimately
thwarted him. When the court in Bush v. Gore handed the presidency
to Bush it gave him an extraordinary and unnatural chance to extend
Republican power.

Only through
the will to power in the Florida contest, the deus ex machina of
the Supreme Court, and the tragedy of September 11, was Bush able
to gain and hold the presidency. But he and the Republicans have
been living on borrowed if not stolen time.

Karl Rove believed
he could engineer a political realignment by recreating his work
in Texas where he marshaled money and focused campaign technology
in order to destroy the Democrats. But the analogy of the nation
as Texas writ large was faulty from the start. In Texas he had the
wind at his back, regardless of how elaborate and clever his machinations.
The transformation of Texas in the 1980s and 1990s into a Republican
state was a delayed version of Southern realignment. Yet Rove came
to Washington believing that the example of Texas could be transferred
to the national level.

With the attacks
of September 11, this seasoned architect of realignment believed
he possessed the impetus to enact his theory. It apparently never
occurred to Rove or Bush that using Iraq to lock in the political
impact of September 11 would ever backfire. In his First Inaugural,
Bush spoke of an “angel in the whirlwind,” but the whirlwind was
of his own making. For all intents and purposes Rove could not have
done more damage to the Republican Party than if he had been the
control agent for the Manchurian Candidate.

The cataclysm
has consumed Rove’s theory, his president, his party, and prospects
for a Republican majority. The Republicans may take years if not
decades to recreate their party, but that project would have to
be on a wholly different basis.

The radicalization
of the Republican Party is not at an end, but may only be entering
a new phase. Loss of the Congress in 2006 is not accepted as reproach.
Quite the opposite, it is understood by the Republican right as
the result of lack of will and nerve, failure of ideological purity,
errant immorality by members of Congress, betrayal by the media,
and by moderates within their own party. They may never recover
from the election of 2004, when they believed their agenda received
majority support and they ecstatically thought they were the “Right
Nation.”

Herbert Hoover
did not transform his party but became its avatar through failure.
By contrast, Bush has remade the Republican Party, turning it into
a minority party as a consequence of his radicalism. By the end
of his presidency, Bush had achieved the long conservative ambition
of remaking the Republican Party without an Eastern moderate wing.
Once a national coalition, embracing New York and California, Alabama
and Illinois, the Republican Party has retreated into the Deep South
and Rocky Mountains.

The emergence
of Senator John McCain, whose career is notable for his breaks with
party orthodoxy and the Right, as the Republican nominee has been
made possible only because of the fracturing of the conservative
coalition forged since 1968. His strategy would have to encompass
states off limits to Republicans for more than a decade and to temper
the radicalism of his party, even as he tries to reassure an anxious
Right that views him with suspicion.

In 1952, the
originator of the notion of realignment, political scientist Samuel
Lubell, wrote in his seminal work, The
Future of American Politics
, American politics is not a
contest of “two equally competing suns, but a sun and a moon. It
is within the majority party that the issues of the day are fought
out; while the minority party shines in the reflected radiance of
the heat thus generated.” When Lubell wrote, even as Dwight Eisenhower
was about to win the presidency resoundingly, the Democrats were
the sun and the Republicans the moon. Only after Nixon did the parties
exchange place in the political solar system. Now after George W.
Bush a new Copernican revolution may be aligning.

But the Democrats
may still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, mesmerized by
grandiose delusions as if the past were weightless. They have not
solidified a new coalition. Barack Obama has yet to win over the
working class voters that were Reagan Democrats, who drifted back
to the party under Bill Clinton, and voted in the primaries against
Obama and for Hillary Clinton. Even were the Democrats to capture
the White House and increase their majorities in both houses of
the Congress, they would have to govern successfully as a party,
which they have been unable to do since the Great Society, under
Lyndon Johnson, at the zenith of his power, more than 40 years ago.
The Republicans have imploded, but the Democrats have yet to put
together the pieces.

August
8, 2008

Sidney
Blumenthal is former Assistant and Senior Adviser to President Clinton
and Senior Adviser to Senator Hillary Clinton; Oscar winning executive
producer of the documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side; author of The
Strange Death of Republican America
; How
Bush Rules
(national bestseller), The
Clinton Wars
(New York Times bestseller), and other
books including The
Permanent Campaign
, The
Rise of the Counter-Establishment
(New York Times Notable Book
of the Year), Our
Long National Daydream
, and Pledging
Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War
(New York
Times Notable Book of the Year); former staff writer for The
Washington Post, The New Yorker and The New Republic,
and contributing writer for Vanity Fair; former columnist
for The Guardian of London, and Salon.com; and currently
Senior Fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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