The Republican Ruins
Having rendered themselves irrelevant on every major issue, Republicans consoled themselves last week with a delusional round robin. First, the Drudge Report, linking to a Pew Poll, featured a headline denying what most of us observe in the real world: “President Polarize: Poll Shows Historic Divide … Partisan Gap in Obama Job Approval Widest in Modern Era.”
Perhaps demonstrating that Drudge, not Limbaugh, is the maestro of the GOP chorus, the point was quickly picked up by Karl Rove on the house network, Fox News. Then The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson, one of the few Bush aides to emerge from that administration with a reputation worth having, vigorously banged the same tin drum, arraigning Obama as “the most polarizing new president.”
The charge is based on what could only be a conscious misreading of the Pew report. Analyzed honestly, the poll suggests that it is Republicans who are polarized, not the country. In their first months in office, according to Pew, both Obama and Ronald Reagan rolled up high, nearly identical approval ratings among voters—about five points higher than George W. Bush’s and 10 points higher than Bill Clinton’s. However, contemporary Republicans disdain Obama; their faithful gather in a shrunken and angry corner of the electorate while the party’s moderates have defected to become independents who support this president with near-record enthusiasm. What the Pew poll really shows is that Obama is on his way to redrawing the political demography of America.
In politics, the smaller a party gets, the more small-minded it becomes. With only 24 percent of voters identifying themselves as Republicans, the GOP is being miniaturized. The pettiness plays out on every conceivable stage—from the do-nothing, denounce-everything Republican minority in Congress to the do-anything Republican attempt to overturn the Senate election in Minnesota, and the say-anything attacks of right-wing talk radio. Democrats, who had every reason to be bitter after the 2000 election, actually gave Bush a job approval rating almost 10 points higher than the one Republicans now begrudge Obama—and they did so during the floundering, pre-9/11 muddle of the Bush presidency.
This is the Republican Party the country sees, a spectacle of resentments and recriminations vying for attention with a president who pursues sweeping economic change while conquering hearts and minds overseas and coolly dispatching the shoot-to-kill order that freed an American ship captain from Somali Pirates.
Republican intransigence does not constitute a strategy but a suicide note. Undeterred by the steep rise in the ranks of Americans who believe the nation is now headed in the right direction—up almost threefold from the rock-bottom dregs of the Bush years—the Republican remnant continues on its march of folly. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who speaks to the sour soul of his party, propagates an alternate reality in which Americans are yearning to repudiate Obama’s activist reach for economic recovery, health-care reform, and energy independence.
Festooned in Newt’s Technicolor dream coat, congressional Republicans seem poised to dig themselves an even deeper hole as the anti-party, opposed to every measure the president proposes to restore growth, improve health care, or protect the environment. You name it, they’re against it. No wonder the latest New York Times survey finds the Republicans’ favorability collapsing to 31 percent, the lowest rating recorded in the poll’s quarter-century history.
Their situation grew more dire last week with reports that the White House intends to move ahead on immigration reform. This will guarantee conservative outbursts of barely disguised ethnic-baiting that is sure to alienate Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Without a foothold among Hispanics, it’s almost impossible for the GOP to win a presidential contest (ask John McCain) or regain a competitive edge in Congress. Texas could evolve into a Democratic state, just as California did following Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s tactical immigrant-bashing in 1994.
The GOP’s crude nativism is matched by its crude nationalism, manifest in the predictable denunciations of the president’s success in Europe. Americans know that George W. Bush’s foreign policy of dictates and sneers was a colossal failure. For good reason, they prefer a president who can lead the world and not just insult it.
In the face of popular rejection, the Republicans offer nothing but the sound of “wind in dry grass.” You can hear it in their threat to unseat their own Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who commits the mortal sin of occasional moderation, by nominating instead a right-winger with no chance of winning the state. Similarly, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most successful Republican on the West Coast, is despised by his own party.
So yes, there is a new polarization in this country: Americans are moving toward true North, the Obama pole. Will it be permanent? Of course not. That notion is just as foolhardy as Karl Rove’s post-2004 prediction of lasting Republican dominance. Every political period, era, or moment has an end.
The Republicans aren’t dead—just comatose. If Obama fails, they will be back. But that outcome appears increasingly chimerical. Meantime, amid the Republican ruins, delusion provides a temporary shelter and psychic self-satisfaction. How many defeats will it take for Republicans to rebuild a credible party of ideas? It’s bound to happen some day, but who knows how or when?