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2011's Uncharted Political Waters

A Commentary by Tony Blankley

The New York Times has written, in explaining why the political parties have lost the confidence of the public: "Their machinery of intrigue, their shuffling evasions, the dodges, the chicanery and the deception of their leaders have excited universal disgust, and have created a general readiness in the public mind for any new organization that shall promise to shun their vices."

The New York Evening Post, in explaining the same condition, has written that the people "saw parties without any ... difference contending for power, for the sake of power. They saw politics made a profession, and public plunder an employment ... They beheld our public works the plaything of a rotten dynasty, enriching gamblers, and purchasing power at our expense."

The dates of those articles were November and December 1855 (See "The Origins of the Republican Party" by William E. Gienapp, Oxford University Press, 1987, page 98.)

When those words were written, the Whigs and the Democrats were the two great parties. The Whigs soon went extinct, the dominant Democrats went on to lose every White House election between 1860 and 1912, except for the elections of Grover Cleveland. The Republicans came into being and won all the elections the Democrats lost.

I have a sense that we may be at the early stages of going through a similar transformation of our party system as we did 155 years ago when the Jacksonian party system failed.

Of course, with the exception of immigration and corruption, the issues are almost completely different today. At the national level back then, the danger of the spread of slavery to western territories was the dominant issue.

Even more tellingly, in 1853-1855, state politics was overwhelmed by a witch's brew of issues (temperance, corruption, immigration, public schools policy and funding, and Protestant/Catholic hostility). And it was those issues that drove the Whigs out of business -- even though they thought the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act at the national level would guarantee their success for the foreseeable future. The anti-slavery issue eventually drove the creation and success of the Republican, not the Whig, Party.

What is the same? Unlike most elections, in 2010 -- as in the 1850's -- the public sees Washington corruption not as something to be lived with, but as a bipartisan, potentially fatal blight to be actively fought by citizens.

And what is also the same is that new big issues are emerging for the first time in generations -- and neither major party is seen having the answers or the will to advance the solutions.

The GOP is very, very likely to win very, very big in November.

But how each party charts the next two years (and then the next four years) may determine whether one or both of the parties go the way of the Whigs and whether a new major party comes into being, as the Republicans did by 1856.

The 2010 Republicans have the opening advantage in 2011 of being generally on the right side of the election -- driving issues of excessive deficits, constitutionally limited government, low taxes and job-creating policies.

Both parties currently are suspect on the issues of corruption and immigration.

The GOP has a policy advantage over the Democrats on the issues of middle-class virtues and cultural issues -- although GOP practices reduce that policy advantage.

The Democrats have the strategic disadvantage -- if current trends continue -- of having the reputation of the Obama administration as a millstone round its neck, as they did with President Carter, and as the GOP did with Herbert Hoover.

But the GOP challenge will be two-fold if they win the House or Senate: 1) They must present a 10-year budget resolution that deals realistically with the unsustainable deficit and tax policies. If they use the usual bipartisan accounting tricks and other Washington policy dodges, their tea party electors will (and should) be powerfully driven toward a third party in 2012. (2) Like the Whigs, they can't rely on the great national issues driving the public perceptions. They will have to avoid letting unlikely tangential issues drive the Washington story. Strange issues have a way of jumping up -- e.g., air traffic controller strike in 1981; gays in the military, 1993; Bay of Pigs, 1961.

In other words, GOP leadership and political skills will be tested. On the great central economic issues, the key leader will be Congressman Paul Ryan -- presumably chairman of the Budget Committee in a Republican House.

He would look to be the right man at the right moment. The GOP has yet to catch up with his bold budget, entitlement and deficit proposals. Anything less than that -- and perhaps even more than his proposals -- will be needed if the GOP is to be seen to deliver on those central issues.

Of course, the president may oppose that policy and veto later in the year appropriations that make a budget resolution corporeal, but he cannot veto a House budget resolution. So the GOP will not be able to avoid the judgment of their electors on the central issues.

Most challengingly, the GOP Senate and particularly House leaders will have to lead a new, large conference that neither owes much to the Washington GOP, nor holds Washington in much positive regard.

They must create party congressional cohesion and substantive solutions to the great electing issues without compromising the freshman's policy and personal integrity.

(Nor will GOP presidential aspirants be permitted the luxury of caution. They must stand and fight in 2011 on the great issues -- not duck, cover and keep their options open. Their absence from the policy and political battlefield in 2011 would cost them dearly in 2012. As Shakespeare's Henry V said of those who did not fight with him at Agincourt: in the future, they "will hold their manhood cheap.")

Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington.


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