08.17.09

The GOP's Big Comeback

The battle over the public option is just the beginning of the Republicans' resurgence—and Obama doesn't even see it coming.

The right is coming back. Inevitably, it's a messy and even ugly process, one that involves fear-mongering and utter falsehoods as well as legitimate concerns and old-fashioned righteous indignation. The Obama White House and left-leaning media outlets are focusing on the "nonsense feedback loop," the fears of "death panels," the outrage of Birthers—all of the outré untruths you'll hear raised at congressional town brawls. Rather more convincing arguments made by the likes of Bush economic policy advisor Keith Hennessey—arguments that influence real-world Republican policymakers—are getting short shrift. It's easy to understand why Democrats have embraced this approach. A few short years ago, the conservative media worked overtime to marginalize the anti-war movement by skewering Cindy Sheehan. Instead of focusing on the retired generals and regional experts and diplomats who opposed the war, the right spent an inordinate amount of time highlighting the lunacy of 9/11 Truthers and ANSWER activists. And it seemed to work, at least for a while. But just as this approach didn't stop a genuine anti-war upsurge from sweeping Republicans out of office, dismissing opposition to Obamacare as the work of a corporate-funded lunatic fringe won't make it go away.

If the war gave the left a sense of purpose, the exploding federal debt is doing the job for the right.

Part of the problem for Democrats is that many have lost the taste for political combat. At this weekend's Netroots Nation in Pittsburgh, what had been an insurgency of disenfranchised left-wingers become something rather different: a sober, sensible gathering of confident—if not slightly smug—activists who are preparing themselves for a long stint in power. Rage against the Bush White House has given way to low-level anxieties over whether President Obama is tough enough to push through a truly progressive agenda. News that the White House has all but abandoned the public option has already been greeted by howls of derision from netroots stalwarts, but the frustration and disappointment is mostly muted. The left was energized by fierce opposition to the war in Iraq, which transformed legions of college-educated Democrats into the internet-enabled shock troops of a new and assertive political movement that promised to transform the country.

With Obama in power, that energy has dissipated. Anti-war sentiment gave progressives the unifying narrative they needed. Yet the fact that over 100,000 troops remain in Iraq and are drawing down according to a gently-paced Bush-era timetable seems to barely phase once-fired-up MoveOn members. Obama's neoconservative-approved escalation in Afghanistan has gotten a rise out of a handful of progressive bloggers and dovish congressional Democrats, but again, the progressive base seems strangely indifferent. And when Organizing for America, the Democrats' effort to institutionalize the excitement surrounding the Obama presidential campaign, tries to rally supporters to counter the right at health reform town halls, one gets the impression that its emails are going straight to spam.

If the war gave the left a sense of purpose, the exploding federal debt is doing the job for the right. There is no small irony to this, as Bush-era tax cuts and the enormously expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (wars which I supported and continue to support) are responsible for much of the deterioration of America's fiscal position. It's taken an economic calamity to remind grassroots conservatives of the virtues of pre-Reaganite root-canal economics. This is not the modern, youthful, multiethnic, forward-looking GOP that Karl Rove and George W. Bush envisioned when they were plotting a run for the White House. Nor is this the highly-educated answer to the middle-class and mostly middle-aged netroots nation. Like the Perot voters who were so desperate for sincerity that they turned to an eccentric and enormous-eared billionaire, this is a movement of old, flinty, very skeptical people who don't believe President Obama when he claims that he can cover the uninsured and improve quality and lower costs long-term. They see it as their duty to save America from smooth-talking politicians.

Obama-era Republicans are as ill-prepared for this wave of angry activism as Bush-era Democrats were for the rise of the netroots. It took years for inside-the-Beltway Democrats to understand that the progressive base wanted a feistier, more confrontational politics. Only when Democrats united to defeat Social Security reform and to pressure the White House on Iraq did the party start to build momentum. That could be why most congressional Republicans are reluctant to cut a deal with the White House: they sense, rightly or wrongly, that maintaining clear distinctions will work to their advantage.

The Republicans who will benefit from this new mood are a very mixed bag. Some are moderates, others are unapologetic conservatives. Gubernatorial candidates like Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey are suburban pragmatists, not hard-core ideologues. They're counting on the votes of hundreds of thousands of Bush-loathing Obama voters, and so they're careful to maintain distinctive profiles. Incredibly, Pat Toomey, the staunchly conservative former congressman running for Arlen Specter's Pennsylvania Senate seat, is running ahead of the party-switcher in a Rasmussen poll that could be an outlier. A generic Republican is polling ahead in the race to replace outgoing Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, a popular Attorney General has an excellent shot at holding Judd Gregg's vulnerable Senate seat while Frank Guinta, the Republican mayor of Manchester, just might defeat Democrat Carol Shea-Porter in the race for the state's 1st Congressional District, putting an end to a long winning streak for the state's Democrats. Republicans also have high hopes for Mark Kirk in Illinois and Mike Castle in Delaware. Note that apart from McDonnell, all of these candidates are running in the Northeast and the Midwest, regions where Republicans were on the verge of extinction as recently as last November.

This piece was corrected to reflect that Ed Rendell is bound by term limits and not running for re-election in 2010.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.