A Political Obituary

September 15, 2010

“Republican Party Dead at Age 156:  Party of Lincoln Succumbs to Palinitis After Lengthy Battle for Soul”

After last night’s primary results, a part of me truly expected to see a headline of this sort in this morning’s newspaper.  For those of you who haven’t yet heard the news, Tea Party activist Christine O’Donnell has apparently won the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Delaware, completing a remarkable run of Tea Party insurgencies that had already toppled party establishment candidates in several states, including Kentucky, Nevada, Alaska, and Florida.  That Joe Miller, Rand Paul, Mark Rubio, and Sharron Angle are actually in position to claim seats in the United States Senate is enough to boggle the mind.  But as far as I’m concerned, the victory of Christine O’Donnell over Mike Castle in the Delaware race truly signals the end of the GOP as we know it.

Mike Castle has served the people of Delaware for more than two decades.  In a state that revels in its small-scale retail politics, Castle was nearly as much of an icon as Vice President Joe Biden.  He was first elected to the State Assembly in 1966, served as Lieutenant Governor and then Governor during the 1980s and early 1990s, and has represented the state in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1993, making him the longest serving Congressman in Delaware’s history.  As Delaware has trended more and more toward the Democratic Party (the state used to be a bellweather, voting with the winner of every Presidential election between 1948 and 1996; but it has become a reliably blue state since then), Castle has remained one of its most popular politicians.  When he announced that he would give up his House seat to run for Joe Biden’s Senate seat this year, everyone assumed that he would coast to victory in the primaries and the general election.

But Tea Party activism and Sarah Palin’s late endorsement lifted Christine O’Donnell to a surprising victory last night, confounding those expectations.  Who is O’Donnell?  Well, she’s a young, telegenic, Christian fundamentalist, who has been accused by one of her former campaign managers of misusing campaign funds for personal expenses.  More to the point, she is utterly out of step with rank and file voters in Delaware on most major issues.  And really this is the point.

The decision Delaware’s Republican voters made last night defies explanation.  Before last night, Republicans still had a chance to win back control of the Senate, and Mike Castle was a key player in their strategy.  He was as close to a sure win as the GOP had in any Blue state.  O’Donnell, on the other hand, has virtually no chance of winning the general election.  But Castle is one of the last of a dying breed.  He is a moderate Republican.  And we know how Tea party activists feel about them.  O’Donnell’s defeat of Castle was a triumph of ideological purity over political pragmatism, a vote for political confrontation and continued gridlock, and a rejection of responsible governance.

As a partisan Democrat, I welcome O’Donnell’s victory.  She will be beaten in November.  Mark Rubio will, I believe, lose the three-way race in Florida.  Rand Paul may well lose the Kentucky race, which should have been a lock for Republicans, and Sharron Angle may well lose to Harry Reid in Nevada, in another race that should have been an easy GOP win.  The partisan in me celebrates every Tea Party win, because each one improves the chances of Democrat success in November.  But as an American, and a believer in the two party system, I find the implosion of the Republican Party alarming.

Don’t get me wrong.  I look forward to seeing the Democrats ascendant for the next generation or two.  But American democracy works best when there are two viable, big-tent parties governing in Washington.  Right now there is only one.  I am sometimes driven up the wall by so-called moderate Democrats — the Blanche Lincolns and Mary Landrieuxs and Ben Nelsons — who vote against the party line almost as often as they vote with it.  But I recognize that by making themselves the big-tent party, the Democrats have positioned themselves for decades of electoral success. But while Democrats have expanded their base, conservative activists in the GOP have purged the party of nearly all its moderates.  Mike Castle might be the last of them, and after last night, he’s through.  Once upon a time the party was home to some truly great public servants — Everett Dirksen and Margaret Chase Smith, Howard Baker and Mark Hatfield, Lowell Weicker, Nancy Kassebaum, and Chuck Hagel.  These were men and women who were willing to set aside partisanship in order to pass meaningful legislation.  They were pragmatists rather than ideologues.  Today, they would have no home in the GOP.  I probably wouldn’t have voted for them, but I always respected them, and I respected many of their more conservative colleagues, who were also willing to work with political opponents in order to get things done.

I’m not saying that Republicans won’t do well in November.  No doubt they’ll take back handfuls of House seats, perhaps enough to put the Speaker’s gavel in John Boehner’s hand for a couple of years.  And they’ll cut into the Democratic Senate majority.  Going forward they’ll have a few good election cycles; they’ll still win the Presidency now and again.  But by embracing the Tea Party, by allowing themselves to be hijacked by Sarah Palin and her followers, they have limited themselves ideologically, racially, socially, and electorally.  Between 1896 and 1928, the Democrats won two Presidential elections (Woodrow Wilson’s election and reelection).  Two out of nine.  Between 1932 and 1964, Republicans won two elections (Eisenhower’s two victories).  Two out of nine.  Between 1968 and 2004, Democrats won three elections (Carter, Clinton twice).  Three out of ten.

This is what the Republicans have in store for the next generation.  They are about to embark on a long, tortuous trek through the political wilderness, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

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2 Responses to “A Political Obituary”

  1. Rob Bachman said

    A few thoughts:

    Your analysis of Delaware moving from toss up to reliably “blue” over the last several presidential election cycles is a nice piece of evidence in support of the idea that it is not the Democratic party that has moved left but that the Republicans have ceded the middle and the Democrats have simply expanded the tent into an even bigger one. In such a world “partisanship” is not a sin but a virtue and the Democrats need to stop trying to find the “middle ground” with the Republicans on every piece of legislation in the name of seeking “bipartisanship.” Rather they need to simply argue forcibly that their position IS the middle ground, moderate position and get on with it. Let the Republicans threaten to filibuster and make them carry out the threat. Remember, Clinton called their bluff on shutting down the government after 1994 and won the war. All of a sudden people around the country remembered that the government actually did important things for them.

    I think the kind of ferment and intellectual wandering that the Republican party is lost in right now was in a sense inevitable. The Goldwater/Reagan ideology (and the neocon world view) had run itself into the ground. Tax breaks for the rich deregulation, and trickle down economics at home and regime change of select “evil” governments abroad could not be sustained indefinitely. The last few years are the direct result of those world views. So lacking a coherent, workable ideological footing has opened the door for various groups to wrestle with what the party stands for. Right now, the “tea party,” which really isn’t even a party, has grabbed the megaphone and is ascendant. Only time will tell if the old pragmatic parts of the party can find their voice or if the various part of the party that have co-existed uneasily over the last few decades will splinter creating a period of multi-party politics.

    Looking forward to November…..

  2. davidbcoe said

    Thanks as always for the insightful comments, Rob. I wish I could say that I was looking forward to November, but as I said in the post, I do believe that in the long-term it’s the GOP that’s in trouble. There were articles in the paper today — one by Krugman and the other by Dionne — that make the same point you do. This is a time for Dems to stand firm and claim the center as their own, rather than allowing the right to drag them away from the middle.

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