The pitfalls of shrinkage



My Sunday column, the revised and expanded director's cut:

Once upon a time, long before the GOP plummeted to its current status as the Southern and Rural Older White Guy Party, it actually was home to a healthy subspecies known as the Republican moderate.

These moderates roamed the land, cutting deals with Democrats, winning statewide elections, and broadening the GOP’s appeal. Pennsylvania alone was fertile turf for people like William Scranton, Richard Schweiker, John Heinz, Hugh Scott, and Arlen Specter. But now, of course, that era is over. Specter has quit the party one step ahead of his own extinction – yet another sign that the Republicans, in their self-defeating quest for ideological purity, have ceased to be a national party.

By the way, I’m hardly alone in saying that the GOP, in its current shrinking iteration, is no longer a national party. Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn basically confirmed it the other day when he asserted that he and his fellow Republicans fully intend "to regain our status as a national party." But perhaps this new assessment of the GOP said it best:

"The (GOP’s conservatives) can’t always be kicking people out…A great party cannot live by constantly subtracting, by removing or shunning those who are not faithful to every aspect of its beliefs...Room should be made for (the moderates). Especially in those cases when Republican incumbents and candidates are attempting to succeed in increasingly liberal states, a certain practical sympathy is in order. In the party now, there is too much ferocity, and bloody-mindedness...'Shrink to win': I’ve never heard of that as a political slogan."

So wrote Peggy Noonan, the Republican speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, in a Friday column for The Wall Street Journal.

Naturally, the conservative true-believers scoff at such warnings and declare themselves thrilled that Specter is gone ("good riddance"); they’ve somehow convinced themselves that the loss of yet another Republican Senate seat constitutes a great victory. It’s delusional. The more the party shrinks, the happier they seem. In Pennsylvania, more than 200,000 mostly moderate Republican voters have quit the party over the past several years, dumping their registrations, yet somehow the conservatives, in their "ferocity," see this as cause for celebration. I marvel at their ability to resolutely march through the smoking wreckage, all the while insisting that it smells like roses.

Let us briefly sift the ashes. The party right now has no coherent message, aside from "Do Not Offend Rush Limbaugh." Its messengers are basically conservatives who sing to the choir. It has virtually zilch appeal beyond its base; as evidenced by the ’08 election and every subsequent poll, the party is alienating suburbanites, independents, Latinos (the fastest-growing cohort in the electorate), and people under age 30 (the voters who will dominate for the next half century). And the geography is worse.

A respected non-partisan group, the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, summed it up perfectly in its winter report: "The GOP is out of contention in New England and the West. It is getting out of contention in the mid-Atlantic states and the industrial Midwest. Its bases of former support in the farm Midwest, mountain states, and the South, are eroding.

"The only places where the GOP enjoys a durable advantage are Idaho, Utah, Kansas, Nebraska, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas. And with the growth of the Latino population, Texas will likely be at least a toss-up state within the next decade." (Actually, pollsters report that 48 percent of Texas Republicans are so angry with President Obama that they want their state to secede from the union.)

Anyway, the GOP’s "durable advantage" has been reduced to 10 red states. A new national poll, conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Peter Hart, reports that only 20 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, the lowest figure in decades. Those holdouts – nationally, and, as Specter discovered, in Pennsylvania - tend to be those who will tolerate no detours from conservative orthodoxy, nor tolerate kind words for Obama.

Specter has left behind a narrowcasted party that would rather marinate in its anger and paranoia than win elections in states outside the heartland and the Old Confederacy. How else to explain the burgeoning popularity of Glenn Beck, the Fox News host, who has been warning of a fascist plot hatched by Democrats? (I’m not kidding. Beck says there’s a fascist symbol on the back of the dime in your pocket – a bundle of rods – and points out that a Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, approved that artwork in 1916.)

Fortunately, there are still some reality-based Republicans. Kristen Soltis, the research director at a top GOP polling firm, warned the other day that her party "is facing changing demographic forces that present a challenge to its long term growth." Translation: Unless the party wakes up and diversifies, it is toast.

For starters, Soltis said that if the GOP is to have any chance of connecting with younger voters, it "must shed its image as the party of 'old white guys.'" Indeed, the party’s current deficit among the young is dire. In the ’08 presidential election, the Republicans lost the under-30 voters by an unprecedented 34 percentage points. (Reagan, in his landslide ’84 victory, won the under-30s by 19 points.) And the ’08 results can’t be simply attributed to Obama’s personal appeal; farther down the ballot, House Democratic candidates won the under-30s by 29 points.

Why were the young so decisive for the Democrats in 2008? Because they grew up during the incompetent tenure of George W. Bush, and witnessed a needless war that was founded on institutional deception. And because they apparently can’t warm to a party that appears intolerant and exclusionary.

The schism on gay marriage says it all. Whereas a landslide majority of under-30s see the concept as no big deal, the Republican party – hostage, more than ever, to its conservative base – equates it with the downfall of civilization. Unless the party modernizes on that issue, its prospects of wooing the next generation of voters are bleak – which is why Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s ’08 campaign, is now urging his party to lay down an important future marker by endorsing gay marriage.

To woo the young, the GOP could also use some new voices; a recent Pew poll reports that 75 percent of all Republicans, regardless of age, have no idea who the leader of their party is. Lately, the two most prominent spokesmen have been Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney, which should tell you plenty. Gingrich peaked in November 1998, when he was compelled to quit as House Speaker after the GOP suffered losses in the midterm elections (Gingrich had tried to make a campaign issue out of President Clinton’s sex scandal, but the effort backfired).

And one can only imagine how young voters view Cheney, who keeps resurfacing to defend "enhanced interrogation," thereby keeping the party firmly rooted in yesterday when it clearly would prefer to divorce itself from the Bush tenure once and for all. As Noonan lamented in her column, today’s young voters "seem embarrassed to be associated" with the GOP.

History does teach us that party fortunes fluctuate over time, so I assume the GOP will somehow find its way back. That’s the natural order of things. But for now, the party reminds me of the college marching band that went astray during the climax of the film Animal House; strutting blindly down a dead-end alley, the musicians collided with a brick wall, and even as they crumpled against each other and tumbled to the cement, they kept on playing the same old programmatic music.

Specter found a way out of that alley. Who can blame him? As Noonan put it, "It is fine to dismiss Mr. Specter as an opportunist, but opportunists tell you something: which side is winning."