Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Republicans, This Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Lives

By Stuart Rothenberg

For members of the Grand Old Party, this is a day to celebrate. Your long national nightmare, otherwise known as the Bush administration, is over.

Of course, there will be plenty of hand-wringing, finger-pointing and even internecine warfare among party activists and their interest-group allies over the next few weeks as various constituencies within the party seek to assign blame for Tuesday’s Democratic sweep, though it was not nearly as bad as it could have been considering the public mood and the Democrats’ financial advantage.

Some will predict the end of the GOP. Others will merely consign it to minority party status for years because of demographic changes.

I know that this will happen because I’ve seen it before: each time a party has suffered big losses, frustration boils over. It happened after the 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1994 elections.

Moderates and ideologues in the losing party always seem to disagree about who was at fault and what steps the bloodied and bruised party needs to take to get back on the winning track. After the 1964 and 1974 elections, some predicted the disappearance of the Republican Party. And reports of the death of the Democratic Party were greatly exaggerated after the 1972, 1994 and 2004 elections.

While the near term is not rosy for Republicans, party members will now be able to turn the page, on what was tantamount to a four-year election cycle.

Maybe President Bush wasn’t responsible entirely for high gasoline prices, a mortgage foreclosure and financial crisis, Republican ethics lapses on Capitol Hill, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a seemingly endless litany of depressing news stories. But the GOP was never going to recover its standing until the Bush years ended. Tuesday night marked the beginning of the end.

Now, Republicans will be able to slide back into a role in which they are more comfortable — as the “out” party criticizing Democrats for expanding government, spending excessively and promoting a liberal cultural agenda. And they can return to their core beliefs and traditional messages of fiscal responsibility, a strong defense and traditional values.

Of course, Republican poll numbers will not improve quickly, and Democrats are likely to run against Bush and the GOP for at least the next eight years, the way they ran against Herbert Hoover for decades and Republicans ran against Jimmy Carter long after he had left the White House and returned to Plains, Ga. But at least Republicans have taken the first step to recovery.

Democrats have plenty of reasons to revel in their victory and particularly in President-elect Obama’s convincing win. With large majorities in both chambers of Congress (though not as large as I expected) and myriad problems to address, they’ll be able to change the nation’s priorities and policies.

But with victory comes expectations, and it is those expectations that could easily morph into problems for the president-elect.

Obama must satisfy Americans, most of whom are pragmatic, as well as base Democratic constituencies, most of which aren’t. And he must propose specific policies and spending priorities, some of which are likely to give Republicans fodder for attack.

The public’s fear and pessimism about the future gives Obama the flexibility that few incoming presidents have. With huge majorities in both chambers of Congress and big problems seemingly everywhere, the new president will find a receptive public and Congress that will give him an unusually long honeymoon, especially after he informs Americans that things are even worse than they thought.

Still, Republicans need this clean break with the past if they are to rebrand their party.

The GOP has lost its advantage on crucial issues, and its ability to regain its standing on those issues will depend on the actions of Obama and the Democratic Congress. But odds are that the GOP’s comeback on those issues — at least some of them — is imminent.

The always-thoughtful Peter Beinhart recently wrote that America’s “culture wars” have ended and that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) may be “the last culture warrior on a national ticket for a very long time.” I suspect that he’s wrong and that the cultural divide will once again reappear, giving Republicans one of their fronts back in the political wars.

Beinhart is correct that the nation’s economic concerns towered over abortion, same-sex marriage and guns in 2008. Cultural issues did take a back seat. But that wasn’t because those issues are now passé or because demographic changes make them irrelevant to American voters.

Democrats have spent years trying to inoculate themselves on “values,” particularly on guns, and if the party governs in a moderate way, it will indeed neutralize those issues. But if the party, aided by the courts, advocates a culturally liberal agenda, you will see those issues surface once again west of the Hudson River all the way across to the California state line.

Similarly, events could give taxes, fiscal responsibility and national defense issues back to the GOP just the way Republicans handed them to Democrats over the past few years. That’s not inevitable, of course, but it’s very possible, depending on the Democratic agenda.

So now we will find out what kind of president Obama will be. Will he be an idealist or a realist, an ideologue or a pragmatist? And exactly how does he think he can “bring America together?” His answers to those questions will likely determine how successful his presidency will be.

It is always fascinating to watch a new president. But this time it may be even more fascinating to watch than most.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 6, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.