Hillary Rodham Clinton must be reveling in the latest round of Republican fratricide. First there’s the Chris Christie–Rand Paul blow-up over national security, surveillance, and pork. Then there’s John McCain’s musing over possibly supporting Hillary—his fellow Iraq War–backer of a decade ago. And, finally, there’s L.I. GOP Rep. Pete King’s comparison of Rand Paul to a Nazi-appeaser!
At this rate, Clinton is on her way to a 40-state victory and a third consecutive Democratic win, while leaving the Republicans with the distinction of being the Party of Dixie, Idaho, and little else. Yes, Paul is correct when he tells Christie that Northeast Republicans are “on life support.” But for the GOP, that’s a bad thing, not a good one. To win the White House, you have to get to 270, and the states of the “NRA Belt” don’t get you there.
The reality is that the Party of the Old South—which is the GOP today and what the Democrats were into the 1950s, is dependent upon a successful alliance with Northern and Midwest ethnics. That is, white Southern Baptists and Northern Catholics have to work with each other—even if they don’t always like each other. Under the Democrats, from the 1930s to the 1950s, and then under the Republicans, from the 1960s to the 1980s, white Southerners and Northerners voted the same way, and thus elected presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 to George H.W. Bush in 1988.
But during Bush 41’s presidency, that North-South alliance started to come unglued. Ross Perot peeled off much of the non-Southern working class, while Dixie stayed loyal to Bush. And so, Bill Clinton won an electoral-college landslide, with just 43 percent of the popular vote. Since 1992, that alliance has grown ever-more frayed, with Catholic voters having gone Republican only once in six elections, and the Republicans having won the popular vote only once, too.
Under these circumstances, if Paul and the GOP are unable to reach an entente with Christie and King and their base, the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will be little more than a soap box to channel the ghosts of 1964 Republican nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater and the Confederacy’s long dead president, Jefferson Davis. To be clear, it was under Davis’s leadership that the South discovered what happens when Dixie goes at it alone: it doesn’t end well.
After the Civil War, from 1868 to 1928—in total of 16 elections, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson were the only Democrats to win a ticket to the White House. Now, the same persistent electoral rejection awaits the Republican Party if it blindly opposes the sorts of programs that Northerners like, including post–Hurricane Sandy disaster relief, Social Security, and veterans’ benefits.
Much as libertarian purists may wish to believe that welfare and Social Security are the same, they are not. One is viewed by voters a benefit earned after a lifetime of labor, while the other is a matter of the taxpayers’ grace. The bottom line is that the GOP can no longer afford to scorn all spending, or to treat all checks issued by Treasury alike.
To that end, the GOP must make common cause with more than just the wealthy or the worshipful, and if it is unable to tell friend and foe apart, it will be consigned to the role of the not-so-loyal opposition for a long time. AARP doesn’t have to be an enemy. If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan could talk to the Teamsters, then the Republicans can surely speak to seniors.
Take disaster relief: as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan describe it, “the American public wants money spent on disasters—cost be damned.” Parsing the numbers, Cillizza and Sullivan report, “59 percent of all respondents say federal emergency aid need not be offset by cuts in other parts of the budget, a number that includes a majority (52 percent) of self-identified Republicans.” To be sure, Christie is not alone. Other Republicans “get it,” too.
In Sandy’s wake, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was joined by Republican colleagues above and below the Mason-Dixon Line in supporting emergency spending for the storm’s victims. Was there pork in the bill? Yes. Should that matter? Not really.
Only seven years earlier, Hurricane Katrina became a teachable moment and, apparently, some actually learned from the resulting destruction that government shouldn’t be drowned in a bath tub. Others, like Republican vice-presidential also-ran Paul Ryan chose to ignore Katrina’s lesson, but still wonder why the GOP struggles to win back the presidency.
Or take veterans’ benefits: these days, the American Enterprise Institute is troubled by “military pensions,” together with “generous housing allowances, grocery discounts, tuition assistance, tax breaks” offered to our servicemen and women. Apparently, AEI hasn’t internalized that Barack Obama actually tied Mitt Romney in Virginia among those who served in the military.
So where should the Republican Party go from here? How about trying to have a conversation with the middle class? What about talking about the need for better jobs at better wages? Why not?
Once again, the stock market hits new highs, but the GDP languishes “modestly,” and employment slogs, with part-time jobs comprising 77 percent of the 953,000 jobs created this year, and the number of discouraged workers rising by 136,000 to 988,000 in July from a year earlier.
Clearly, there is an opening for the GOP in 2016, but neither unvarnished libertarianism nor unalloyed invasive corporatism will be enough to beat Hillary. The Democrats fought their way back from the political wilderness by building a coalition of the rich and the poor. It is time for the Republicans to form their own counter-coalition, one that makes the middle class and work its centerpiece.