Monday, April 27, 2009
To be relevant in politics, you need either formal power or a lot of people willing to follow your lead. The governing Republicans in the nation’s capital have lost both on their continuing path to irrelevance.
The disconnect between D.C. Republicans and Republicans throughout the country has been growing for nearly 20 years, but it became more intense and noticeable during the waning years of the Bush administration.
Perhaps the final straw was the $700 billion bank bailout plan pushed through Congress last fall despite strong voter opposition. For all the furor unleashed this spring by congressional Republicans about President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan, the Bush-era bailouts last fall were approved with virtually no advance notice and no guidelines as to how the money would be spent. Looking back, most voters and nearly eight-out-of-10 Republicans now believe the bailouts were a bad idea.
The April 15 “tea party” protests, viewed favorably by 51% of Americans, were fueled as much by anger at the bailouts as anything else. Many Inside-the-Beltway Republicans chose to distance themselves from the events, and many tea party participants were happy to express their anger at both Beltway Republicans and Democrats.
The bailouts came on top of earlier doubts. Many Republicans had expressed concern about the growth of government spending throughout the Bush years. Then there was the immigration issue. On that topic, the Bush team championed a bill that was even less popular than the bailouts. Eventually, despite strong bipartisan support in Congress, the Senate surrendered to public opinion and failed to pass the Bush-backed reform. Beltway Republicans just didn't recognize the large gap between Mainstream American and the Political Class on this issue and assumed that those angry about it are angry at the immigrants. In fact, data shows that the anger is directed primarily at the federal government.
The disconnect between the Republican base and Beltway Republicans also can be seen in the recent history of presidential nominations. In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, was seen by voters as more likely to deliver tax cuts than Republican nominee John McCain. By the way, Bill Clinton’s victories in the 1990s also followed a belief that he was more likely to deliver tax cuts than his GOP opponent. It’s hard to imagine how the party of Ronald Reagan could let that happen, but it did.
The trend began in 1988 when the first President Bush was elected on the strength of Reagan’s record. Once safely in office, Bush appeared to forget what it was he said after asking voters to read his lips, and he ended up governing with a fiscal policy that was more like Bill Clinton’s than Ronald Reagan’s. By 1992, the Republican share of the presidential vote fell to 37%, a 22-point decline from Reagan’s total eight years earlier.
In 1996, the GOP nominated Bob Dole, an honorable man and a capable legislator, but he was also a man famously described as having never met a tax he didn’t hike. Dole could only pick up 41% of the vote.
Then, in 2000, the second George Bush was nominated in large part on the strength of his inherited name recognition and network. While he learned from his father’s mistake about tax cuts, he was unable to connect that to a larger purpose. By the end of Bush’s second term, the war in Iraq had dragged down the GOP, and Beltway Republicans became identified as the party of big business. That’s not a good place to be when 70% of Americans view big business and big government on the same team working against the interests of consumers and investors.
The gap between Beltway Republicans and the Republican base is part of a wider gap between the Mainstream and the Political Class. On many issues, the gap between Mainstream Americans and the Political Class is bigger than the gap between Mainstream Republicans and Mainstream Democrats.
But Political Class Democrats control Congress and the White House while their GOP counterparts have little in the way of power and influence to overcome the disconnect with their base. One immediate result of this is that senior senators like Arlen Specter and John McCain now are facing primary challenges. Other challenges may follow. It used to be possible for Republicans in Washington to argue that they needed someone like Specter or McCain to hang on to the majority but no longer.
Look for the Republican Party to sink further into irrelevancy as long as its key players insist on hanging around Congress or K Street for their ideas. The future for the GOP is beyond the Beltway.
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