November 17, 2008

Cornellians Ponder Future of Republican Party

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As Barack Obama transitions into his first presidential term, he will be backed by an overwhelming Democratic majority in Congress including the addition of at least five new Democratic seats in the Senate and at least 20 in the House. A few weeks after the election, Republican officials remain busy speculating about where they went wrong and which direction they need to move toward in the future.
Most Republican leaders blame the losses on their inability to build a cohesive platform that could resonate with a more diverse group of voters than just the party’s base. The elections exposed the strong divide between the different factions within the party, specifically between the fiscal and social conservatives.
“The GOP tent has been uncomfortably large for some time, and while there is certainly some overlap, I think this election has exposed the long-simmering tension between different factions within the party,” Michael Miller grad, an election consultant, stated in an e-mail. “My sense is that many old-guard Republicans have felt that their party has been hijacked by social and neo-conservatives and the result has been an unsettling rightward tilt.”
Others believe that the Republicans lacked a true leader with the ability to unite the party’s supporters, and that one will need to emerge in order for the party to be successful in the future.
“The fiscal conservatives were particularly unhappy with John McCain,” said Joel Silbey, the President White Professor of History Emeritus. “And aside from Palin, they don’t seem to have any leadership at the top. But people are beginning to maneuver.”
Yet, Silbey believes that the loss was not entirely McCain’s fault, and he blamed Bush’s lack of popularity and inability to hold the party together for driving many potential voters away.
Silbey stated, “It was Bush who sold out [the party’s] ideals of fiscal conservatism and balanced budgets.”
Thus, Republicans were forced to appeal to their base.
“I thought that the two conventions were telling,” Miller said. “The Democratic delegates looked like America today, with a wide range of races and ages represented. The Republican delegates, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly old and white. The GOP has failed miserably in its prospective demography.”
In order to rebuild support for the party, the next generation of Republican leaders may need to take a page out of former president Ronald Reagan’s playbook. Reagan was able to build a coalition based on a vision of economic conservatism that left social conservatism out of the national government.
Theodore Lowi, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, authored a book in the mid-90s entitled The End of the Republican Era, which predicted the party’s imminent collapse. He explained, “They must rebuild in a very non-religious and non-faith-based way. Reagan transcended the absolute moral values of the right wing and built a coalition based on economic principles. Morality should always remain local because national moral movements are susceptible to schisms.”
He believes that the Republicans must rebuild with an economic message that touts the party’s achievements. Although there may not be a majority of Republicans on the national scene, there are still several strong Republican governors capable of focusing on their respective state’s infrastructure. Lowi points to Dwight Eisenhower as an example of a leader who was able to create a stronger Republican coalition by focusing on the country’s infrastructure.
“Eisenhower picked something enormously powerful to bring together and hold together the GOP coalition: the building of the Interstate Highway System. This set the stage for Reagan,” Lowi said. “Bush hasn’t focused on infrastructure.”
Republicans will also need to consider what type of tone they want to take in the years to come. While the party successfully used negative language to garner support for Bush in 2000 and 2004, it seemed much less successful for McCain.
“The rhetoric from the presidential campaigns was also indicative of a problem that Republicans need to address. Obama was generally positive, using inclusive, forward-looking language,” Miller stated. “McCain, on the other hand, often favored divisive rhetoric, such as his repeated references to ‘Real America.’ The Rove doctrine was always to divide and conquer, but Obama never allowed this campaign to become a war of attrition.”
Future Republican success, however, may be contingent on how Obama performs as president. If he is popular and successful, it will be hard for the GOP to attack the Democrats.
Silbey predicted, “My guess is the message will be against everything Obama does — they will become an opposition party. But if Obama is successful, this message won’t carry and it can lead to further divide and confusion.”
In the end, it seems that voters want hope and the reassurance that their leaders will bring their country to a better place.
Rob Morrissey ’12 said, “The Republicans need the kind of leadership that Obama has. A type of leadership that makes people excited about politics, that unites people.”