Friday, December 14, 2007

Watching A Train Wreck In Slow Motion

I was listening to NPR this morning, and there were two separate reports, one on the Democratic debate in Iowa, the other on the lack of any clear front-runner, or even possible front-runner, in the Republican field. Indeed, the second story focused on the strategy Rudy Giuliani is hoping will work, viz., not caring about Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina, and working on the Feb. 5 primaries in 22 states, including New York, New Jersey, and California (the most populous, and biggest prize). I was thinking about doing a post on the relative merits of the two sets of candidates in general terms, when I came across this by Matt Yglesias, which in turn references this essay, which reads in part:
The GOP is not debating what it stands for, nor is it a party that knows what it stands for and is looking for the best candidate to win a general election and/or to effectively carry out the party’s program. The GOP is not trying to find a leader for the party. It is looking for a candidate who is the incarnation of the party.

I think this is either dead wrong, or right but trivial, and in either case misses the real story of the differences between the two parties. The Democratic primary is a struggle for party identity, post-Clinton. Do we embrace the Clinton legacy of baby steps, with rhetorical flourishes to the left and legislative nods to the right, or do we move forward to build a real populist/progressive coalition, a party that reflects a newly emerging political consensus in this country? There are politicians who reflect the latter (Edwards in some ways, Obama in some ways) but who communicate the vision poorly. There are politicians whose ties to the past, through institutional commitments (Kucinich, Dodd) might make them less attractive than their sound policy proposals would suggest. Finally, there is Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is transcendent in many ways, running as her husbands wife, but independent of him; recalling the 1990's while looking to the future; invoking her status as a woman while refusing to call herself a feminist.

If one takes the formula quoted above seriously, then the Republicans' problem is a wealth of choices. Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Mitt Romney have all been successful politicians as elected Republican officials, with records other Republicans have held up as models of their party's governance. Yet, except for the recent Huckabee bubble, few voters seem excited, and there seems to be every indication that we might emerge from the early, January, primaries, with no candidate having anything like the momentum necessary to move through the Feb. 5 primaries and clinch the nomination (this is Giuliani's hope). I think the reason this is so is simple, if one considers the current poll ratings of George W. Bush and the Republican Party. While it is true that Bush is He Who Must Not Be Named in debates, ads, and discussions of Republican politics, he is a constant presence for both the parties and the candidates. Unlike Ronald Reagan, whom George H. W. Bush embraced (as did many other Republicans in 1988), the Bush 43 legacy is one no Republican candidate wants to run on, for good reason. Yet, they are stuck with it. Voters know about it, because they live with it, and all its corrosive effects.

Over the course of several Presidential election cycles (1968-1980) we watched the slow implosion of the (Presidential) Democratic Party, as it struggled with the legacy of Vietnam and the Great Society, as well as the racist Southern Strategy of Richard Nixon pulling the Yellow Dog South into the Republican camp. Bill Clinton was able to win in 1992 partly because he had lived out the struggle and came out the other side, with scars. He had not served in Vietnam, for reasons both base and principled (as were the reasons of many of those who opposed the war) and he embraced parts of the Great Society vision, while rejecting others, and transforming still more. The post-Clinton Democratic decision is whether this is a proper ideological stance.

I am looking forward to the Republican primaries. I am looking forward even more to the post-election post-mortem, as the Republican Party makes its first tentative steps towards figuring out "what went wrong". Of course, the answer will be simple, and they will have to live with the legacy of eight years of George W. Bush as President for as long as the Party exists.

Virtual Tin Cup

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