Thursday, April 30, 2009

The future of the GOP

I've been invited to give a talk on the future of the Republican Party in June. I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with it, but Robert Farley's post from earlier today seems like a good place to start. Still, I'm not sure I agree with him here:
Political parties do die. They don't die often, but even in the United States they sometimes go belly up. I think that the Republican Party has become stuck in an ideological and demographic trap of its own making, and I'm not sure that it understands the seriousness of the situation. It's Congressional deficit is greater than any that the Democrats have faced since 1931. It's struggling to maintain its share of a part of the electorate that is steadily shrinking, and it has failed to make serious inroads into any other demographic.
For one thing, the last time a major party died was in the 1850s, and its death gave rise to the Republican Party and the Civil War. To say they "don't die often" is a bit of an understatement.

But beyond that, I'm not sure how useful it is to use a party's demographic shortcomings to describe its prospects for overall success. Yes, the GOP is at a low ebb right now, but not necessarily because its unpopular with Latinos or women. It's pretty much unpopular across the board, as this graph of party self-identification shows:

But that won't last forever. At some point, Obama's approval ratings will drop significantly, either because the economy fails to rally, or because of a scandal or some kind of screw up. And the GOP will look relevant again. That doesn't mean they'll be the majority party again any time soon; that may take decades to achieve. But they'll be back. They'll probably make some gains in the House in 2010, although I'm not sure about the Senate. And when their stock begins to rise, they'll start looking good among various demographic subgroups, too.

Just remember where the Democrats were in 2002. It really didn't seem like they were on their way back to unified control of the government within six years.


Josh Putnam said...

Your last point got me thinking, Seth.

Is the economic situation to the Democrats what 9-11 was to the GOP (in electoral terms)? In the short term voters moved toward the GOP based on security concerns, but gradually moved away as they soured to the course of implementation (wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gitmo, etc.).

Similarly, voters have moved toward the Democrats in the wake of the recent economic upheaval. Do voters move away if the Dems can't right the ship?

This may be an unnecessarily cynical view of voters -- the average voter isn't that fickle -- but the parallel here is interesting.

Part of the GOP's problem now is the unwillingness of some within to the party to adapt to a changing political landscape. And really, it is just a "let's wait and see" approach that isn't that out of line with what you'd expect of a conservative political party.

Let's wait and see how Obama does.
Let's wait and see what happens with the economy.
Let's just wait and see.

At some point, though, the wait is going to be over. Either the landscape will become more favorable or it will be time to decide whether to adapt or die out as a party.

Seth Masket said...

I'd say the GOP's current approach is consistent with the Democrats' approach after 9/11. They weren't quite sure what the president's vulnerable issues would be, so they experimented a little bit but mostly waited until the election year to try anything.

It's a little different in that the GOP is clearly more comfortable attacking Obama on the economy (or at least his fixes for the economy) than the Dems were attacking Bush on terrorism. But there's still a lot of uncertainty in the sense that the president is strong, they know they have to mount an attack in the next election, they know he'll be vulnerable on something, but they're not sure what it will be.

Robert said...

I find all this "GOP is in a death spiral" talk incredibly short-sighted. And it seems like just about every presidential election produces this kind of jabber in one direction or another. It was the Dems who were supposedly dead during the Reagan years, then the Repubs (and then the Dems again) in the Clinton administration, and then the Dems after 9/11. It was just five years ago that Karl Rove was being hailed as a visionary with his permanent Repub majority talk.

All the talk now about some kind of a paradigm shift in American politics misses four facts that make this moment unique: 1) W. was a singularly inept president; 2) he led us into the most unpopular war in U.S. history; 3) in his wake we are suffering through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; and, 4) at just this moment a Democrat presidential candidate emerged who is the kind of charismatic figure seen once in a blue moon (a la Kennedy or Reagan). I can't think of a point in U.S. history where the confluence of events so favored one party. And yet, even in this perfect storm, the Republican candidate for president captured 48% of the popular vote!

Count me dubious about the alleged death of the GOP.