Politics & Policy

How the GOP Got Here

Understanding and recriminating.

Well that wasn’t good news for the Right, last night! National Review Online asked some regulars to address: “What happened to the Republican party Tuesday? Who’s to blame?”

L. Brent Bozell

The election of Barak Obama will go down as one of the greatest political sleights of hands of all time. Obama campaigned on the empty rhetoric of change and hope and will instead deliver socialism, something too many of his supporters never saw coming. The leftist so-called “news” media was complicit in this charade, refusing to tell the truth about this man’s agenda. Their reputation is finished.

The liberal wing of the GOP has caused the collapse of the Republican party. It is no longer a viable player in the political conversation, and deservedly so: For a decade it has spat on the values of Ronald Reagan. Conservatives let it be known on Tuesday in races all over the country that it has had enough with the betrayal.

We conservatives need to face the new political reality soberly — we are out — but we can also face the future with optimism. Our principles were embraced by every single GOP primary candidate, even President-Elect Obama, who spent half his time championing tax cuts, fiscal discipline and a strong national defense, all promises we know he’ll break, but promises he needed to make to win the election.

Our principles continue to be embraced by the American people. It is our movement that needs rebuilding. That begins today. It’s time for conservatives to roll up their sleeves, strap on their boots, and get to work.

— L. Brent Bozell is president of the Conservative Victory Committee and chairman, Media Research Center.

Alvin S. Felzenberg

In this election, given that so much was running in the Democrats’ favor, the Republican party nominated the only candidate with a ghost of a chance of winning. Still, the GOP came up short. Historically, that’s no surprise, as only one time has a party won the presidency three times in a row since World War II (the Republicans with Bush I).

So, the three strands of conservatism in the house Reagan built would do well not to blame each other for taking the GOP down. They would do better to ask themselves whether, in their quests to enact their agendas, they relied too much on raw exertions of power and too little on the power of persuasion. For it is in defending ideas that unforeseen weaknesses are revealed and public support built. 

From the Bush II’s swearing-in to the McCain campaign, there were at work elements of a “corrupt bargain” in which each part of the conservative coalition held its fire at the excesses of the others in the hope of attaining much of its own objectives. An ill-conceived and poorly planned war went on unabated; institutional and constitutional checks and balances were ignored; deficits mounted; spending proceeded at an unprecedented pace; and, for the first time since Herbert Hoover, the nation stands on the verge of financial meltdown. Would that more conservatives had criticized the departing administration before Bush “43’s” ratings fell to 27 percent. They did neither him, nor their cause, any favors by keeping silent. 

It is said that in every victory lay the seeds of future defeats and in every defeat, the seeds of future victories. There is, after all, something liberating about being free of ultimate responsibility for the executive and legislative branches for the first time in 15 years. That is one year less than it took to complete the long march from Goldwater’s defeat to Reagan’s victory. One question hanging over Republicans will be whether they do it again without a second Nixon interregnum.

– Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.

Michael G. Franc

Two things jumped out at me in reviewing last night’s results: First, in the House, the Democrats’ surge reached far and wide. It claimed victims from both the Republican Right as well as the Middle. Reliable and effective conservatives such as Reps. Marilyn Musgrave, Tom Feeney, and Thelma Drake lost. That most endangered form of Republican, the moderate, suffered another round of devastating losses, with most of the attrition coming from a rash of voluntary and (some) involuntary retirements. I count at least 14 more seats that have shifted from a moderate Republican to a reliably liberal Democrat. And, as was the case in the last two election cycles, once these seats flip to Democratic control they tend to transition seamlessly into safe (and liberal) Democrat seats for the foreseeable future.

With these changes, returning House Republicans will be more uniformly conservative. To the extent congressional Republicans plan to rediscover their inner conservative selves, this enhanced ideological uniformity will serve them well. The caucus of House conservatives, the Republican Study Committee, stands to gain clout within the House Republican circles.

Republicans in the Senate, meanwhile, will be tempted to write off Tuesday’s losses as the consequence of a perfect political storm that aided Democrats and, in any event, was not as bad as might have been expected. If they ever want to regain the majority, that would be a mistake. The more prudent course of action would be to go back to basics, re-learn the core principles of conservatism, and apply them to the enormous policy challenges that lie ahead.

And that brings me to the second observation.

The exit polls, to the extent they can be believed, remind us once again that America remains a decisively right-of-center nation. Liberal remains a dirty word. In fact, many more Americans continue to self-identify as conservative (34 percent) than as liberal (only 22 percent). Knowing this, successful Democratic candidates across the country used conservative rhetoric and themes to score points against their Republican opponents and win the hearts of voters. The Democrats’ repeated refrain on behalf of middle class tax relief was but one of several such examples.

Little wonder then that 20 percent of conservatives (and 60 percent of moderates) actually voted for Senator Obama. Undoubtedly, Republican strategists will invest considerable time in the months ahead deciphering exactly why this is the case. Conservative strategists, in turn, will ponder why it has become so easy for liberal candidates to don the rhetoric and values of modern conservatism on the campaign trail and then shed it upon assuming office with no discernable consequence.

Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.

Jonah Goldberg

When asked if he’d run for office again, Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, responded: “No! The people of New York threw me out of office, and now they must be punished.” The American voters threw out the Republican party, and they were largely right to. At least in the sense that the GOP deserves to be punished. The problem is that the Democrats do not deserve to win. More on that at NRO later — and by later, I mean the next 2 to 8 years.


I think McCain did better than pretty much any other Republican candidate could have. But I think the McCain campaign didn’t do as well as they could have. I think McCain could have won. They blew an amazing number of opportunities. They mishandled Sarah Palin horribly. They were obsessed with unfair media coverage while doing very little to take advantage of it or even do anything serious about it. They inherited an enormous number of problems not of their own making, but they made even more problems for themselves than they needed to.

There will be much more said about this, but in short I think John McCain biggest problem was that the GOP had lost any sense of intellectual or ideological definition and John McCain didn’t bother to offer any definition of his own until helped by Joe the Plumber. And by then it was too little too late.

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

Greg Mueller

Tuesday night’s defeat was no surprise. For Republicans, the politics is not that difficult to understand. Republicans win elections when they govern and run campaigns as advocates of limited government, strong national defense and speaking out on cultural issues. We lose elections when we cut deals in the name of pragmatism or try to out liberal the liberals. The Republican brand is deeply damaged. The GOP is no longer trusted by the American people to serve as the party of fiscal discipline. It has lost a willingness to debate cultural issues such as life, gay marriage and cloning — winning issues in past elections for Republicans. The immigration issue, big government Republicanism, the financial crisis which led to a 700 billion dollar bail out and failure to emphasize Obama’s extremism on cultural issues proved to be turning points against Republicans this cycle.

#ad#Exit polling conducted by the conservative American Issues Project in key battleground states shows that voters in those states entrust Barack Obama and Democrats on taxes, spending, and the handling of the financial crisis. The only issue voters in key states said they trusted McCain and Republicans more on was the war on terror. Data also shows that the country remains conservative, but lacks a populist conservative party, a brand the GOP has shed in the last two cycles. Unless the Republican Party returns to the across the board conservative agenda that wins elections, it will remain a minority party. At this point the best and only hope for the GOP to gain back traction is a far left wing Obama Administration and Congress imposing various forms of failed socialist policies. To the wilderness we go.

 – Greg Mueller is a Republican strategist and president of CRC Public Relations based in Alexandria, Va.

John J. Pitney Jr.

John McCain made mistakes. But even if he had run a brilliant campaign, the result probably would not have been much different. With a worsening economy, a protracted war, and an unpopular incumbent at the end of an eight-year tenure, it would have been extremely difficult for any Republican to win. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz has an election-forecasting model that takes such conditions into account. Several months ago, before the start of the fall campaign, his model predicted that Obama would win the two-party popular vote with 54 percent to McCain’s 46 percent.

But Republicans are hardly blameless. Fourteen years ago, they took control of Congress on the strength of their ideas. Over time, though, they put the retention of power ahead of the advancement of principle. They squeezed campaign contributions from interest groups while they neglected the grassroots donors who believed in conservative ideals. They abandoned belief money in order to get access money, and they ended up with neither.

If they want to reconnect with their supporters, they should spend less time at the Capitol Hill Club and more time at Sam’s Club.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Mark Steyn

I congratulate Senator Obama on a remarkable and decisive victory. It was in many ways the final battle in a war the Republican Party didn’t even bother fighting — the “long march through the institutions.” While the Senator certainly enjoyed the patronage of the Chicago machine, he is not primarily a political figure: Whether “educators” like William Ayers or therapeutic pop-culture types like Oprah, his closest associations are beyond the world of electoral politics. He emerged rather from all the cultural turf the GOP largely abandoned during its 30-year winning streak at the ballot box, and his victory demonstrates the folly of assuming that folks will continue to pull the lever for guys with an R after their name every other November even as all the other institutions in society become de facto liberal one-party states.

Bill Bennett asked me on the air the other day why voters were so hot for this hope’n’change mush, and I suggested that it’s the dominant vernacular of the age. Go into almost any American grade-school and stroll the corridors: you’ll find the walls lined with Sharpie-bright supersized touchy-feely abstractions: “RESPECT,” “DREAM,” “TOGETHER,” “DIVERSITY.” By contrast, Mister Maverick talked of “reaching across the aisle” and ending “earmarks,” which may sound heroic in Washington but ring shriveled and reductive to anyone who’s not obsessed with legislative process. This dead language embodied the narrow sliver of turf on which he was fighting, while Obama was bestriding the broader cultural space. Republicans need to start their own long march back through all the institutions they ceded. Otherwise, the default mode of this society will be liberal, and what’s left of the Republican party will be reduced (as in other parts of the west) to begging the electorate for the occasional opportunity to prove it can run the liberal state just as well as liberals can.

Mark Steyn contributes to National Review, among other publications. He is the author of America Alone.

Richard Viguerie

In the 2008 elections, Voters did not reject conservatism. They rejected Big Government Republicanism in all its forms, including the Bush administration and the Republican leadership in Congress.

The McCain campaign represented many things Americans do not like about politics. Senator McCain spent more than a quarter-century in Washington as a moderate and insider, and his campaign was run by longtime Washington insiders and lobbyists for Big Government.

This disastrous defeat can and will be laid at the feet of the Big Government corporate Republicans who abandoned the Reagan Coalition, massively expanded government, and ignored the needs and values of regular, grassroots Americans. They protected Wall Street and K Street, and forgot about Main Street.

Republicans will make a comeback only after they return to their conservative roots. That process starts with the replacement, with principled conservatives, of all of the Republicans’ elected congressional leaders, as well as most members of the Republican National Committee and most state party officials. It’s time for new leaders, from top to bottom.

The battle for the heart and soul of the Republican party begins now.

– Richard A. Viguerie is author, most recently, of Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause.

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