Republican Realignment In 2008?

[ Posted Thursday, December 27th, 2007 – 17:22 UTC ]

While predicting the future of the Democratic Party is usually a futile exercise due to the inherent "herding cats" nature of the party, predicting the future of the Republican Party is usually pretty easy to do. So easy, it's boring. Which is why I normally shy away from the subject.

But 2008 is going to be a watershed year for the Republican Party, because they seem to be having their own set of factionalist problems. Which means the fortunes of the GOP will be a lot more interesting than usual next year.

In normal election years, the Republicans usually line up fairly early behind their nominee. They circle the wagons around a candidate, and immediately look forward to the general election contest. This time around, however, nobody's even predicting a winner yet, and the race increasingly looks like a five-way matchup. You can make a plausible case that the GOP's nominee will be Giuliani, Romney, Huckabee, McCain, or even Thompson.

That's a lot of plausible "front-runners" this late in the Republican race. I have already predicted that no clear winner will emerge from their February 5th super-duper "national primary," and that Republicans will have to battle on into the spring over two (or possibly even three) of these candidates.

But that's a subject for another day. For now, I'd like to look at the bigger picture of the Republican Party as a whole, and their entire ideological direction. And how it may change next year.

There are three candidates who could force large changes on the party, depending on how they do in the primaries, and (to a bigger extent) how they do in the general election next November. Each of these three candidates may wind up steering the Republican ship in a different direction. Or, at the very least, influencing the course it takes in a major way.

The first of these is Ron Paul. Long considered a joke by the national media, Ron Paul has been raising money hand over fist on the internet, and is on track to have raised more campaign cash than any other Republican candidate in the fourth quarter of 2007. That's an impressive feat for anyone, and it should be considered astonishing and unprecedented for a "joke" candidate.

Money talks. It actually talks quite loudly in Republican circles. Meaning the party bigwigs are going to notice the millions of dollars Paul has been raising on his libertarian themes. Looking to the future of their party, Republicans see their membership shrinking, and growing steadily older over time. They desperately need some new blood, and you can bet they'll be paying attention to the youth appeal of Paul's campaign.

Ron Paul speaks for a faction of Republicanism that is actually quite wide -- the American West's Republicanism which can be summed up as: "Get the gummint off my back!" These people are getting fed up with the party's current direction, which is why the money is flooding in to Ron Paul's campaign.

But Ron Paul isn't going to win. This means that his impressive fundraising abilities will be respected, and Republicans in future will likely attempt to tap into this vein of campaign cash, but they likely will just offer lip service to the libertarian causes. The Democrats had a similar experience with an internet money machine themselves, and they responded by making Howard Dean chairman of their national party organization. Somehow I don't see the Republicans following that plan (although they may indeed offer him something in order to keep him from declaring as the Libertarian Party candidate next year). So, in the end, the Paul phenomenon will likely have an effect on the party, but a minor one seen in, perhaps, some language added to their party platform (which nobody even reads anymore), and courting Paul as a fundraiser for the future.

The other two Republican candidates seem to be leading the party in different directions, so it will be interesting to see who wins the tug of war between them. Rudy Giuliani is trying to sell himself as the "most electable" Republican in the race (memo to GOP: ask Democrats how well that worked out with John Kerry...); and Mike Huckabee is attempting to force the Republican Party to walk the walk (and not just talk the talk) on the religious right's set of issues.

Giuliani is, as everyone knows, not exactly a poster boy for big Republican wedge issues. He's tolerant of gays, he's been married three times (and each of these marriages has their own potential political problems for him), he championed a whole bunch of "liberal" issues while mayor of New York City, and (unlike Romney) he doesn't appear to be selling out on all of these issues and trying to flip-flop his way into the nomination.

Now, Giuliani has his own base of support in the Republican Party, centered around the fear of Islamic terrorism. The " noun, verb, 9/11 " style of his campaign has attracted many voters on its merits. But there are also voters out there playing the triangulation game -- "Rudy will be the strongest candidate against the Democratic nominee, so let's all rally behind him. OK, he isn't pure on the wedge issues, but do we really want President (shudder) Hillary? Rudy's got the best chance to beat her."

But I also wonder whether Rudy is the last chance for the GOP to stop a mass exodus from its ranks. Much attention has been paid over the last decade or so to the deep South switching from its traditional Democratic roots to a solid-red Republican fortress. But not so much attention has been paid to the opposite effect -- the New England Republicans getting crushed in election after election. All of the Northeast seems to be turning a solid Democratic blue. New England Republicans have traditionally been the home of the fiscally conservative (but socially moderate) wing of the party. They have been shocked (and even disgusted, some of them) at the rise of the religious right within their own party. They truly don't think government belongs in the bedroom, they're more concerned with balancing the budget.

And they're getting eaten alive for it. This is one reason President Bush has lately tried to paint himself as some sort of fiscal champion, holding the line against those darn tax-and-spend Democrats in Congress. The only problem with this is that he just spent seven years signing everything the borrow-and-spend Republicans in Congress sent him. And the people of New England haven't forgotten that.

But all this could change with a Giuliani nomination. Giuliani, to these Republicans, would be seen as turning the party back to a more middle-of-the-road Republicanism -- their fabled "Big Tent." Rudy would prove to voters in the Northeast that Republicans can differ with the party line on social issues and still be a success -- and still be considered a "good Republican."

Then there's Mike Huckabee. Now, I am not as alarmist as some when it comes to evaluating Huckabee's religious influence in the race and the Republican Party. He's not exactly Jerry Falwell, in other words. If he got elected, I don't see the United States become a theocracy the week after Inauguration Day, for instance.

But there's no denying that he used to be a minister. And that his ideas are cut directly from the religious right's whole cloth. He would energize the religious base of the Republican Party in an enormous way, since he would be seen as being "one of them" on all the issues which matter. If Huckabee manages to win the GOP nomination, look for him (and his supporters) to pull the party even further into the "if you're not with us, you're evil" side of the road. Huckabee's campaign, even if it does nothing else, whether he wins the nomination or not, will tend to give a fairly accurate measure of the relative strength of this faction of the party. Nobody really knows how powerful the religious right is within the Republican Party, and this may be the ultimate test of this question. This may wind up actually shrinking the party as a whole, though, as moderate suburbanites and urban Republicans flee their own party in fear of what it has become.

Whatever the influence of Paul, Giuliani, and Huckabee on the primary race (and the direction the Republicans set for the general election), in the long run the effects on the party may be exactly the opposite of what I've laid out here -- if they lose in November. The party will rally around Giuliani or Huckabee if they win the nomination, to be sure, but they may also see it as an political experiment. If Rudy's the nominee, they may be thinking: "Let's see how a social moderate does with the American voters at large." If Huckabee gets it, the thinking will be: "OK, it's the religious right's turn to run the show. Let's see how this works out."

But if they lose the race, the backlash within the party may be fierce, and may end up being the best indicator of the direction of the Republicans for years to come. If a moderate can't gain the votes they expect him to get, then they may adamantly demand a purist from the party the next time around. If a purist on the religious issues can't get the votes from the country at large, it may be the catalyst for diminishing the influence of this faction over the party's direction, and they may look to a more moderate candidate in the future.

While there are admittedly too many variables to make any sort of accurate predictions, and I certainly wouldn't want to make any Karl Rovian type of "permanent Democratic majority" statements, if the Republicans lose the White House next year, the Republican Party that comes out of such a loss may look substantially different than the party today.

Of course, if the Republican wins in November, the same statement could be made, but the effects will be the opposite -- a validation of either Rudy's moderate positions or of Huckabee's religiosity.

Either way, though, the Republicans seem to be setting themselves up for one of those once-in-a-generation reassessments of what the party stands for as a whole. To me, that will be one of the most interesting outcomes of the race, no matter which way the chips fall.


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “Republican Realignment In 2008?”

  1. [1] 
    akadjian wrote:

    It has been fascinating to watch the Republican pundits such as Drudge, Limbaugh, Coulter, and Lowry attack Mike Huckabee.

    And even more fascinating to watch Huckabee fight back using some of the strategy and rhetoric that the Republican party typically reserves for liberals. That is, painting conservatives like Limbaugh as out-of-touch, moneyed, elitists that take their cue from the "D.C./Manhattan chattering class."

    Unfortunately, I think what will happen is a reverse of the current power structure in the Republican party. Currently, the economic Republicans dictate the candidates and the evangelicals vote for them because they're the lesser of two evils. What I think the future might hold is that evangelicals could determine the candidates and economic Republicans will vote for them as the lesser of two evils.

    It will be very interesting though indeed.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    akadjian -

    That is an interesting and original prediction. I have to think about your comment, as it would indeed open up a brand new can of worms in the GOP.

    Do you think that if what you say comes true, (a) the candidates would be any better or worse, and (b) could they win national elections or would the GOP consign itself to permanent minority status until things changed again?

    I'd be interested to hear your answers. Thanks for writing, you've put a bee in my bonnet indeed.


  3. [3] 
    akadjian wrote:


    That's tough.

    The question about minority status I think hits the core of the issue because this is something the GOP desperately does not want. So they are in a position of having to hold together their coalition.

    And this need to stay in power is what gives the evangelical side of the party the better negotiating position.

    Why? Because the worst-case scenario for the evangelicals is that they leave and form their own party. Wouldn't bother them one bit. Especially since they're not really getting what they want.

    If they approach the GOP with their demands and say we will give you votes and work to further business interests, but we want X, they will get X.

    I think they'll get X because the best alternative for the pro-business forces is diminished power and perhaps a minority status. They need the evangelicals much more than evangelicals need them.

    What seems to be happening though is that the Christian side of the party is starting to realize their position.

    And that's why I see the balance of power shifting in the GOP unless their leaders find a way to make the pro-business position stronger (or seem stronger).

    What I think it comes down to is who cares more about losing political power?

    And I think it's the pro-business side GOP'ers. They've counted on the evangelical votes for so long that they've cut off other options.

    My two cents anyways. I think you're right that if the sides can't hammer out an agreement, it could impact their ability to win elections. Especially if evangelicals form a 3rd party.

    But I think the pro-business side will try to avoid this at any cost. And that's where evangelicals have an opportunity for more power in a realignment.


    p.s. Still a lot to think about here. Because I think what you're getting at is how would a religious candidate play in a national election. Would this scare voters away from the Republican party? Quite possibly. But I think the GOP would have an easier time positioning this than trying to hold onto power if evangelicals walk. You can't argue with God.

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    akadjian -

    There's another scenario which is almost as interesting, and may play out at the same time. It's a little-known fact, but the pro-business side of the GOP (of both parties, actually) is for illegal immigration (helps their bottom line). And they're going to be faced with the rank-n-file Republicans who are whipping this into their next big wedge issue. The real question is what will the big business interests do when faced with open revolt on the issue within the GOP.

    Of course, there's always the question of how the Democrats are going to handle the same issue, but I see a real intra-party fight on the GOP side next year over this.


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