2005-12-23 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Is The
by Stuart W. Mirsky

The Sunday New York Times’ Week in Review recently had an interesting piece by Alan Ehrenhalt, entitled “A Tent Divided”. Addressing the question of political homogeneity in the two major parties in the U.S. these days, Ehrenhalt argued that, while the Republicans remained a big tent, Democrats, as today’s minority party, mostly consist “of people and interests with a similar political and cultural language. Any differences in strategy and policy choice,” he noted, “are essentially at the margins. On the issues Democrats care about most these days — abortion, the role of religion, the war in Iraq — there aren’t that many dissenters. The dissenters have left.”

But Ehrenhalt adds this is not the same for Republicans who have become a much more diverse and divergent political entity. According to Ehrenhalt, the election results this past November, while they “don’t suggest when collapse (of the Republican big tent alliance) will occur . . offer a few clues to how it might happen.” Described as the executive editor of Governing magazine, it’s not surprising Ehrenhalt would be seen dancing on the GOP grave like this, but his point is certainly worth the Republicans’ attention.

Citing the recently successful campaign of Virginia governor-elect Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, he notes that Kaine “tore through the fragile Republican constituencies, winning almost every populous suburban county, even the conservative exurbs outside Washington and Richmond, and leaving his Republican opponent stuck with a rump coalition of rural die-hards, Christian activists and anti-tax militants . . .”

Both major parties in this country, unlike the major parties in the parliamentary systems of governments of Europe and elsewhere, are non-ideological in nature. Our system tends to create parties that are alliances of diverse groups coming together in agreement on a few major issues and, indeed, this is how the GOP built its majority over the last 30 years, following the time honored pattern pioneered by the Democrats in the days of FDR.

And yet, this political dynamic has its weakness. In the fifties and sixties increasing tensions between the old-line conservative, and mainly segregationist, southern “Dixiecrats” increasingly pushed them into conflict with the New Deal liberals with whom they shared the Democratic Party. That amalgam of factions in the Democratic northeast consisted largely of labor unions, minorities and internationalists and their views and needs did not match those of the Democratic south. Their “Dixiecrat” brethren came increasingly to oppose many of the things the northeastern Democrats supported. The result, over time, was a realignment of factions.

Even as civil rights became the law of the land and proved to be the new moral high ground for all sides, with old line segregationist “Dixiecrats” falling away from their regional commitment to segregation, many still deserted the national Democratic Party in droves because of that party’s commitment to big government solutions for social problems. Such solutions put the Democratic liberals in the northeast at odds, culturally, with the more socially conservative southern base and the Republicans took advantage of this, expanding their “tent” to include socially conservative disaffected Democrats.

But now, says Ehrenhalt, the same kind of split that shattered the old Democratic alliance has begun to affect the Republicans. Although descended politically from a series of parties supporting stronger central government, the Republicans, in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s 1963 campaign for president, remade themselves as the party of smaller government, of state and locally based solutions and of the old fashioned values and institutions social conservatives cherish.       

But, Ehrenhalt suggests, the modern GOP may have really turned itself into a tent too large, containing such a range of diverse views that the fault lines have begun to crack. Democrats, says Ehrenhalt, should be taking advantage of this.

Bill Clinton made mistakes,  Ehrenhalt notes, “but he never failed to understand that the Republican alliance was tenuous and easily sundered, which is why he won two terms and would have won a third. Al Gore, utterly inept at exploiting the same vulnerabilities, still managed to outpoll George W. Bush by more than 500,000 in the popular vote in 2000.”

According to Ehrenhalt Republicans “are a hyper-extended family whose members are starting to realize that they have very little to say to each other. The internecine arguments over the year’s Supreme Court nominees and last week’s House budget bickering only serve to underscore the discomfort.”

Drawing the logical conclusion he goes on: “ . . . running against Republicans, in much of the country, is no longer the political equivalent of rocket science. It requires candidates who can find the torn places in the (GOP) tent and then push through them. Bill Clinton knew how to do that; incumbent governor Mark Warner and his successor Tim Kaine learned how to do it in Virginia. John Kerry never quite figured it out and didn’t become president. . . It remains to be seen whether the next Democratic applicant for the job will grasp the opportunity. But it is there for the taking.”

Of course, it’s not surprising that, as an editor of Governing magazine, Ehrenhalt would side so obviously with the Democrats, the party of big government. But it should be troubling to all Republicans that his analysis looks to be so dangerously close to the truth.

Republicans, in the wake of their recent electoral route across the country and after deserting Bush because his initial pick to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wasn’t politically red enough, now need to step back from the political precipice they’re poised over and think long and hard about the alliance of factions they’ve built. If you’re going to have a winning national political party in the American system of government then you have to know how to compromise and work with those with whom you may not entirely agree. Litmus tests on Roe v. Wade or anything else are a bad idea because they are so divisive and, what’s worse, impossible to justify.

Here in New York Republicans need to learn this lesson too. They need to learn to live with, and even embrace, a mayor like Michael Bloomberg who, though he’s barely a Republican, is certainly entitled to define himself as one. Too many socially conservative Republicans wanted to drum him out of the party over the past year or so. Instead they got rolled during primary season and watched from the sidelines as the mayor handily won re-election. Bloomberg may not be a perfect Republican, but who is?

If the GOP is to hold onto its tenuous majority in the face of a no-holds-barred effort by Democrats to wrest power back on the national level, it better learn how to work and play well with its own. And that means socially conservative Republicans, especially, have to suspend their rigid loyalty tests in favor of cooperation with Republicans of other persuasions. The old GOP has to make way for the new because, if it doesn’t, the recent election results will only be a down payment on what’s coming.


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