The Rockaway Irregular
Since the recent election, a lot of ink's been spilled over whether the Republicans got what they deserved. After all, they had majorities in Congress since winning national elections in 1994, a year into the Clinton administration, and they had the presidency since 2000 when Bush v. Gore was decided by U.S. Supreme Court. But in 2006, the Republican Congressional majority finally collapsed and now, in 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain went down in flames before Democratic political shooting star Barack Obama. With the consequent enlargement of the Democratic legislative majority the tides seem finally to have turned against the GOP. The postmortems in the media from pundits and politicians on both sides have been fast and furious.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, resident liberal columnist and author of What's the Matter with Kansas? (analyzing why so many Americans seem receptive to a Republican conservative message), Thomas Frank couldn't help crowing over the conservative collapse only days after Barack Obama's historic win. More recently he has argued that liberals have to be ever vigilant against insidious conservatives trying for a comeback, in spite of past humiliations at the polls. In his November 19 column, "It's Time to Give Voters What they Want," he argues that the last election should be seen by the incoming Obama administration as evidence American voters are finally ready for the return of real liberalism in all its historic big government glory.
Quoting Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern's claim that, "We've redefined the center," Frank argues, among other things, for an early push on the labor movement's demand for "card check" legislation doing away with secret ballots in favor of public signatures by workers under the watchful eyes of union organizers to unionize work places, despite the impending collapse of the big three American automakers due, in no small part, to decades of union dominance.
On the Republican front the selfexamination and breast beating have been equally evident. Aware that they have lost something that took years to achieve and that the political philosophy they oppose now commands the field, they're in a dither over what to do next. In 2004, when then Democratic presidential contender John Kerry was caught whispering that Republicans were a "bunch of crooks," many of us took umbrage, considering the statement intemperate and, certainly, unfair. But a series of subsequent public scandals rocked the Republican Congressional leadership, from the conviction of high profile Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff to convictions of Republican Congressmen in California and Ohio, followed by the resignation for lewd e-mails by a Florida Republican Congressman. Kerry's words no longer looked so outrageous.
Combined with the ongoing campaign by Congressional Democrats to demonize everything the Bush administration did, from defending its Iraq war decision, to listening in on foreign terrorists, to tracking money flows to groups like al Qaeda, to sequestering captured terrorist suspects at Guantanamo, to pre-emptively grabbing suspect terrorists off the streets in foreign lands, to remanding many back to their home countries (when these lacked the protections of American jurisprudence), to aggressive interrogations of hard cases like Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, the mastermind of 9/11, to dismissing presidential appointees in the Justice Department . . . all these issues left Republicans reeling in the public forum and left them looking stained and incompetent.
After eight politically bloody years of this kind of relentless attack, Republicans saw their grand coalition of conservative American factions crack wide open. They didn't help themselves in the leadership they chose either. It's at least arguable that the coalition built by Ronald Reagan on the scattered bones of the defeated, though principled, libertarian conservatism of Barry Goldwater, can't be put back together. There are those who argue for a revived focus on so-called family values while others point out that it was the departure from old Republican principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility that tarnished the GOP brand. Still others, like Thomas Frank, see in Republican failure the loss of credibility of their ideas. Whatever the cause, a little history may be instructive here.
America has had a two party system pretty much since its inception. The earliest parties developed around the question of Constitutional government. When the old post-Revolution government under the initial Articles of Confederation failed in the late 18th century, American leaders of the newly independent colonies came together in a convention to institute a new, more centralized government. The result, the U.S. Constitution, was eventually ratified by the new states and became the law of the land. The first American political party was the Federalists, a group that coalesced around the drive to adopt the new Constitution. With that adoption their raison d'etre disappeared. Their old opponents, known as the anti-Federalists, rallied around Thomas Jefferson's agenda for smaller government and made him the nation's third president.
The Jeffersonians called themselves Republicans, though they were derisively termed democrats by the old Federalists because of the democratic excesses of the French Revolution. By Andrew Jackson's time (he won the presidency in 1828) the old Jeffersonian Republicans proudly became the Jacksonian or Democratic Republicans, eventually dropping "Republican" from their name entirely, while those who opposed Jackson, including many old Federalists, coalesced into a new party, the National Republicans. This group favored using the power of the federal government assertively to expand and protect American commerce. Intriguingly, it was the southern Democrat, Jackson, who ended the first effort at southern secession when he intervened to halt South Carolina's attempt to leave the Union over a dispute involving federally imposed tariffs.
The National Republicans were never very successful and eventually gave way to a new party, called the Whigs, who similarly opposed Jackson and took their name from the appellation applied to opponents of the British Crown during the Revolutionary era. The Whigs did manage to win a couple of presidential elections and were a force in American politics for roughly 22 years (1834-1856) but gave way to the new Republican Party, formed in 1854 in opposition to the expansion of slavery into Kansas. Anti-slavery politicians and voters left the Whig and Democratic parties in droves to find a new home among the newly formed Republicans, because the older parties were unwilling to take a clear stand (though the Democrats were pro-slavery throughout the south). Democrats and Republicans have been the two dominant parties in our two party system ever since.
But why two parties? The American Constitution relies on a winner-take-all electoral system. Unlike parliamentary systems where the majority in the legislature gets to form the government, the right to govern in our country goes to whoever wins the presidency. Thus, while parliamentary systems have room for post-election coalitions, the American system requires coalitions to be formed before presidential elections, encouraging the combination of multiple factions in advance of elections. Our two party system is thus a reflection of the competition between ins and outs, those who run the government and those who want to.
And there's the rub for today's Republicans. Despite the fact that both major parties' positions have changed over the years (Democrats have gone from being small government/states rights advocates supporting slavery to supporters of big government and spending, while Republicans have shifted from favoring big government to belief in small government, reduced regulation and taxation), neither party can succeed without its coalition. The Democrats, in their years in the wilderness, have rebuilt and refined their positions around a strong belief in the role of government while Repubicans, in power, fell in love with the big government from which their rank and file tend to recoil. The real and faux scandals that rocked the GOP over the past decade have further eroded their credibility.
In this time of reassessment, as Democrats take hold of the levers of national power once more, Republicans have got to figure out if the old coalition they built still makes sense. It's true that ours is a system with two strong national parties but, as John McCain liked to say in his recent campaign, nothing is written —not even that Republicans must be one of them. firstname.lastname@example.org