But even as the folks inside the beltway are starting to see that the GOP ranks are looking pretty thin, they're still missing the why. Writing in the Washington Times (the Goposaur paper of record), Lanny Davis lays the blame on the religious right.
Sooner or later, it will have to face up to the reality that its problems are not a result of bad political strategy or communications, the current most popular self-deluding rationalizations. Rather, the shrinkage is primarily due to two facts about the current Religious Right-dominated Republican Party: unpopular ideas and bad attitudes.
And he finds Sen. Olympia Snowe voicing similar thoughts.
"There is no plausible scenario under which Republicans can grow into a majority party while shrinking our ideological confines and continuing to retract into a regional party. ... It was when we began to emphasize social issues to the detriment of our basic tenets that we encountered an electoral backlash."
Presumably, if the Republicans would only get out from under the sanctified thumb of the religious right, a wellspring of would-be Republican moderates who are offended by all that God stuff would swell the ranks of GOPerdom. Fiscal conservatives would rule, if they could only free themselves from the social conservatives. Neither Davis nor Snowe seems to see the irony in suggesting that the party can grow if it only expands its ideology -- by disowning part of its ideology.
There are a couple of problems with that. In fact, I think it's absolutely assbackwards. To see why, let's look at some pictures.
We talk a lot about the recent decline in the Republican Party, but when you look at the percentages over the last 40 years, a different pattern emerges. From 1969 to 2009, Democrats have dropped almost 15% in party identification. The slide was only arrested around 2003, and over the last four years Democrats have picked up a few percentage points. In comparison, a forty year review of Republican ID looks like a study in chaos, one that ends up almost where it began. Run a straight line through it and you could even infer an upward trend. But before you panic, note a couple of things. That Republican trough near the beginning of the chart represents the fallout from Watergate. The "natural territory" of Republicans previous to that event was in the low to mid-thirties. So the last Harris value on the chart represents a nearly 10% decline for the Republicans from their highs, while more recent data shows the Republican slide continuing to around 20%. A big part of this is the increasing tendency of Americans on both sides of the aisle to buck party ID. It's been years since more people identified themselves as Republican than independent, and in some recent polling independents have even outstripped the Democrats.
To get another sense of the nation's political temperature, let's take a look at chart showing control over the House of Representatives for the last forty years. What's special about the House? Nothing, but there's a bunch of it. If you look at the presidency, the fluctuations in party control are much more frequent, and Republicans actually hold the Oval office for a good part of the last forty years. But if you're looking at a race with only two major candidates then personal charm, hints of scandal, a badly run campaign, a fumbled question at a debate or a vice-presidential pick out of far northwest field can outweigh ideology. For the House of Representatives, sheer numbers of candidates and frequency of election drowns out much of the noise. The makeup of the House comes much closer than the presidency to indicating the national mood, the national thinking, the national ideology.
You could extend this chart back another forty years and find that the periods of change are few. From 1918 until 1932 Republicans held control. It was only the Great Depression and World War II that created a period of erratic swings, following which the Democratic Party settled in to solid control of the House for the next three decades. From 1958 to 1994, Democrats didn't just lead in the House, they dominated. There was a momentary lead of astounding proportions after Watergate, then the House returned to the same territory in which it had fluctuated since 1954. Until 1992. The Democratic decline that starts in 1992 extends into a freefall in 1994. There follows more than a decade of Republican leadership in the House that's not reversed until 2006.
So... why? The switch from Republican to Democrat at the start of the Democrats' thirty year run came following economic depression and war. The recent return to Democratic control came in another period with war overseas and economic failures at home. But what about 1992? What happened then to make such a huge change? Voter identification as Republican didn't move sharply higher in 1992. In fact, voters identifying themselves as Republicans peaked in the late 1980s, at the same time as the Democrats were increasing their lead in the House. When the decline starts in 1992, it's actually at a point where Democratic ID seems to have stabilized and Republican ID is treading down again. Why are the Republicans able to accomplish under Clinton what they never could at their peak of popularity under Reagan? You might argue that House seats are a lagging indicator, as unemployment is in the economy. Maybe the familiarity of incumbents and simple momentum holds seats in place for years after the mood has changed. Maybe, but that's not what the Watergate period, or previous periods of change, demonstrate.
There are a lot of theories. The best one being that the period from 1992 to 1994 represented the peak of a kind of "Throw the Bums Out Fever" that pushed term limits and disdain for "professional politicians." Democrats took the brunt of the losses in the House for the same reason George H. W. Bush lost his seat in the Oval Office -- simply because they were the ones in power. Not so coincidentally, the same cycle saw Ross Perot take down a larger percentage of votes than any independent since Teddy Roosevelt.
But that's not the whole story. Let's take a quick look at some bills that were passed in the 103rd Congress under Democratic control, and the 104th Congress under the Republicans.
|Family and Medical Leave Act||Communications Decency Act|
|Religious Freedom Restoration Act||National Gambling Study|
|Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act||Welfare Reform Act|
|Don't ask, don't tell||Defense of Marriage Act|
Naturally, this list isn't all the important legislation passed by either Congress, and the Republicans -- having taken both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1950s -- had an ambitious agenda. They were picked because they're indicative of another force that drove Republicans into the majority rather than just a mere exhaustion with having Democrats in charge.
That slide in Democratic Party ID from 1969 through the 1990s is deceptive. It doesn't represent so much a gradual national dissatisfaction with Democrats as it does the dramatic political remodeling of the South. Over this period former "yellow dog" districts turned into the heart of a growing southern Republican base. This regional shift away from the Democratic Party represented an opportunity for the Republicans, but also presented them with a challenge. Southern working-class populists were not the most natural fit in the party of Nixon. Republicans needed a way to hook former Democrats, something that would convince them not just to renounce their former party, but turn them into active supporters of the Republican agenda.
And they found that hook in the 1970s. That's when the Heritage Foundation began hosting a quartet of conservative activists including radio host Robert Grant and direct-mail king Richard Viguerie as part of a new organization, the Christian Voice. The purpose of the organization was to merge two very disparate viewpoints -- fiscal conservatism and social conservatism. To invent the religious right.
The alienation of former southern Democrats provided fertile ground for this new organization. Heritage provided the money and the office space. Soon the Christian Voice was joined by the Moral Majority and other organizations designed to create furor around Democrats and their "liberal values." If Republicans could pull it off, they could marry their traditional base with a new movement that could provide them with a lock on the South.
However, they first had to get past a powerful obstacle. Previous to this period, the largest block of southern Christians, members of the Southern Baptist Convention, were indoctrinated against mixing religion and politics. To circumvent this problem, conservatives launched an orchestrated takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, gained control of the denomination, and by the end of the 1980s turned an organization that had been on the political sidelines into a focal point for driving new Republican voters to the polls. The victory was so complete that a religious denomination that had been strictly nonpolitical for a century, became the only major denomination to endorse George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.
What the shift of 1992 represents isn't just a dissatisfaction with Democrats, but the full integration of the southern base and the Christian right into the Republican Party. 1992 was the first year in which the Christian Coalition distributed voters guides through churches. With their traditional base across the country, the Christian Right, and the Solid South, Republicans had a position that made them nationally competitive with Democrats for the first time in half a century. Not only that, it gave them a party with enthusiasm at a time when most people were disgusted by politics as usual.
And that's the real problem for the GOP.
Davis and Snowe are absolutely right to think that the move to twist the Republican Party around a social conservative base is costing them votes among moderates. It's also the likely cause of the continued decline of Republican ID, which is now at levels that actually pass the worst of the Watergate era. The trouble is, it takes both the social conservaties and the fiscal conservatives for the Republicans to form a winning coalition. That's why the first business of that Congress in 1994 was to pass laws rewarding the Christian Right that had returned them to power after so long in the wilderness.
Casting out the social conservatives now won't lead to a winning position, because there are not enough fiscal conservatives to keep the GOP from being more than an afterthought. Sticking with the social conservatives, whose demands for action on their issues are both insatiable and whose positions are unpopular with the general public, is another route to failure. In forcing a merger between these two factions, Republicans gained temporary victory, at the cost of endless confusion and long term disaster.
If they now push out the social conservatives, they can hold the next Republican convention in Olympia Snowe's living room.