The Magazine

Pathetic Republicans . . .

A self-help plan for the GOP.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Johnson's defeat and Wilson's cliffhanger are also emblematic of the geography of the GOP loss in 2006. Republicans have now been all but wiped out in the Northeast. This is not a sudden development. Beginning with the 1996 election, the GOP tide, as it receded, did so unevenly. The South stayed strong, still recording GOP takeaways from Democrats until this year, but the two coasts and the upper Midwest were becoming much more difficult territory for the GOP. By now, the de-Republicanization of these regions is about complete, and the problem has spread to the high plains, the Midwest, and the noncoastal West, such as Wilson's district in and around Albuquerque.

That more or less leaves the GOP with a majority it has the potential to turn out only in the South. And unless Republicans are content to be a regionally strong minority party, they need to do something different.

What might that be? Well, the first step is to understand that the issue mix in the Contract With America, though it produced an electoral majority in its day, has played itself out. Some of that 1994 agenda has been enacted, such as an end to the welfare entitlement. Some of it has proven impossible to enact even by a GOP-controlled Congress and a Republican president. Some of it, for example the call for term limits, responds to concerns that are simply dated.

As the salience of the Contract issues faded, the GOP congressional majority in the House seemed to turn more and more to the largely symbolic politics of the social issues, conservative identity politics, and the culture wars--the ban on "partial-birth" abor tion, the intervention on behalf of Terri Schiavo, the Defense of Marriage Act and the attempt to amend the Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, the limitation of federal funding of stem cell research, and, of course, restrictionist immigration policy.

The GOP stand on these issues is indeed overwhelmingly popular in the South. The ballot initiative banning gay marriage passed with 81 percent of the vote in Tennessee. But to take that very issue, if you look at how similar initiatives fared in other states, you see a much more closely divided electorate (and in Arizona, the initiative seems to have failed). Moreover, the cumulative impression of the GOP congressional posturing in the culture war is that that's all there is. The party has come to be defined as representing the concerns these issues reflect--and little else, or not enough else. That's an environment in which the revelation of Rep. Mark Foley's interest in teenage male pages detonates with maximum impact.

What Republicans need is to be something more than the party of culture war--and tax cutting, of course. You can tap into your base to deliver victory if your base is big enough. The GOP's no longer is. And its right wing is solid. Which means that the only place to go to enlarge it is in the center.

The American electorate is center-right. The core supporters of the GOP are conservative, which constitutes an advantage for the party over Democrats, whose core supporters are liberal or progressive. There are more conservatives. But if the GOP is only a conservative party, in the sense of being no longer able or willing to devise a Contract-With-America-style issue mix whose appeal extends beyond the social conservatism of the South, then it will be a minority party so long as Democrats understand they must appeal to the center. As they did this year, and could do again.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.