I hadn’t expected this line from him. My friend is the kind of tough-minded partisan who screens dates for political affiliation and who says that whenever he gets weeping calls from retired constituents about too-expensive prescription drugs, he thinks to himself, “You should have saved more then, shouldn’t you?” A year ago, he was gearing up for a life on the Hill; now, he’s taking the LSAT and planning for law school. He won’t vote for Bush this year, either, a choice he says was “unthinkable” 12 months ago.

“What’s infuriating,” he told me, “is that it’s hard to know what the party stands for beyond defending a bunch of interests. I mean, look at the leadership–who do you have? Frist? Hack. DeLay? Hack. Hastert? Total hack. I can’t figure out if the administration are hacks or just don’t care. John Kerry’s running on budget deficits–that’s supposed to be our fucking issue.” He started slamming his hand against the table. “In 15 years, the whole federal budget blows up because of Medicare, this ridiculous prescription-drug benefit that no one even likes, our taxes go through the roof, and the economy breaks down. And this time, it’s gonna be our fault.”

This has been the summer of Republican discontent–a rare moment of finger-pointing and introspection after some in the party began to examine the sum product of four years in power, and concluded that, judging by their own principles, the GOP should have done much, much better: In late May, the libertarian Cato Institute hosted a conference on the legacy of the Republican revolution of 1994, a decade later. Dick Armey, the retired House Majority leader who helped engineer the 1994 takeover, was the keynote speaker, and he was decidedly glum. The party, he said, has reverted to “doing the wrong things so we can get reelected to the right thing.” Newt Gingrich, who followed Armey, told the audience that their revolution had reached a tipping point in the late 1990s, when it had traded in ideology for interest groups. These were criticisms that Gingrich and Armey had been voicing privately for months, but such a public airing had a bracing effect. “When you want to talk to people outside of government to get perspective on how you’re doing in terms of conservative principles, you talk to Gingrich, you talk to Armey, and maybe there’s a third guy, but I can’t think of him right now,” a senior aide to a conservative Southern congressman told me in August. “People paid attention.”

Within a month, the floodgates seemed to open. The right-wing pundit Robert Novak wrote a June column blasting “runaway spending” by Republicans in Congress. In a July speech before the National Press Club, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, often described as a possible ’08 presidential candidate, tore into his party for a legislative attitude where “nothing can get done unless every Congressman has something to take back to his district.” Meanwhile, on the Hill, internecine squabbles had stalled major legislation on energy, tax reform, and highway funds. The Wall Street Journal, interviewing House Speaker Dennis Hastert about the legislative logjam, caught him in a contemplative mood: “The American people don’t want us pointing fingers,” he told the paper. “They want us to do something.”

Yet as Congress closed shop for the summer, divisions between Republicans had meant the House couldn’t pass a 2005 budget, a depressing signal of failure. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who disapprove of the job being done by Congress, which had been hovering around 40 for the past five years, leapt to 52. Several polls taken in the spring and early summer showed that voters preferred Democratic positions to Republican ones on every single domestic policy issue. And the grinding, bloody fight in Iraq had some of the war’s strongest GOP proponents throwing up their hands in disgust at the administration’s failure to plan for the post-Saddam occupation. Indeed, by late summer, a few Republicans who could politically afford to–such as retiring Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.)–were openly questioning the wisdom of the whole venture, as were a majority of the American people.

With John Kerry still leading most campaign polls, conservative despair began to take on a more hysterical tone, and epic scope. “The era of small government is over,” warned David Brooks in The New York Times, shortly before the Republican national convention. “We’ll let slip a thinly disguised secret,” wrote Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard. “Republicans are supporting a candidate that relatively few of them find personally or politically appealing.” Even Pat Buchanan, in his vampy style, warned of a coming “civil war” within the party.

Such open hostility subsided during the GOP convention, damped down by the balloons and the president’s rising poll numbers. Still, the summer’s feud was like a peek inside a volcano: It offered a glimpse of the eventual eruption. The attacks on the party and its leaders came, scattered but forceful, from all parts of the GOP; though most critics shared a bill of complaint, each faction had its own recipe for salvation. The Armey-Novak conservatives wanted the party to renew its commitment to the small-government principles of 1994 and 1980. Brooks and the moderates looked to 1904, to the strong government conservatism of Theodore Roosevelt. Both groups were wishing for a kind of soul transplant: If the party could just reclaim its essence, they hoped, the current drift might be resolved.

But both of these historical analogies are hopeful fantasies about what the GOP might someday become, not reasonable guesses at the near future. The truth is, for all its apparent strength, the modern Republican Party has worked itself into a position of profound and growing decay. Worried Republicans are right to look to the past to help sort out their future. But the right date isn’t 1994 or 1904. It’s the late 1970s–and the party to look at isn’t the Republicans, but the Democrats. Like the Democrats of that period, the current version of the Republican Party is supremely powerful but ideologically incoherent, run largely by and for special interests and increasingly alienated from the broader voting public. Today’s GOP is headed for a profound crackup. The only questions are when, exactly, the decline will start–and how long it will last.

American political parties, like great empires, often seem strongest at the moment before they fall. Just as the principles and ideas that have built the new order triumph, their relevance and practicality begin to fade as new conditions emerge. Yet true believers will cling ever-tighter to the old ways of thought, and those who cling tightest are granted the greatest moral authority. Meanwhile, the constituencies that the ascendant party once rallied to its cause become powers unto themselves: parochial, imperious, demanding, and hard to discipline. Soon party leaders begin to confuse the agenda of their constituencies with the interests of the nation, and the act of governance becomes less a crafting of solutions than a division of the spoils.

This is the state of the GOP today, but it also describes the condition of the Democrats two-and-a-half decades ago. It can be hard to remember these days just how powerful and dominant the Democratic Party was in 1976. Like the Republicans in 2000, they had just elected as president a moderate, evangelical Southern governor, defeating the successor to a morally flawed president by promising to restore integrity to the Oval Office. Like the GOP today, the Democrats found themselves in control of all three branches of the federal government–the Democrats had near-veto-proof majorities in both chambers of Congress–as well as the majority of state legislatures. Organized labor, its power not yet decimated, was squarely in the Democratic camp, while the corporate lobbying sector offered significant support for the simple reason that Democrats ran everything. Just as the GOP in 2000 tended to look at the Clinton administration as an unfortunate detour on the road to a permanent Republican majority, so Democrats in 1976 looked back on the Nixon years as a temporary aberration from the natural order in Washington, one Democrats had and always would dominate. It wasn’t just that the party was powerful; the Democrats, returning to the capital in the winter of 1977, thought their principles put them on the right side of history, and the country had come back around to seeing things their way.

But for all the party’s political power and institutional strength, it was in an intellectual rut, returning again and again to ideas that had long ago stopped working. Like any party, the Democrats then were a coalition of factions. New Deal economic constituencies (labor, farmers, industrial and energy interests) coexisted with newer liberal-left, socially-conscious groups (environmentalists, rights-conscious black and Hispanic organizations, feminists, Naderites) that had emerged from the tumult of the 1960s. These various factions often disagreed vehemently. Environmentalists clashed with autoworkers over fuel-efficiency standards; building trade unions were at war with civil rights groups over affirmative action. Scoop Jackson Democrats wanted Washington to take a tougher line with our Soviet enemies; human rights doves wanted Washington to take a tougher line against our tyrannical allies, such as Ferdinand Marcos. What all of them could agree on, however, was the vital importance of big government. Each wanted more spending for its programs, more robust regulations, and a stronger hand for Washington in the market to restrain the forces that threatened its own interests. Big government was the glue that held the Democratic coalition together. It was also the moral cause that defined the party, and in 1976, that cause seemed beyond dispute. Even Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency and instituted wage and price controls to fight inflation. The argument seemed over. Big government had won.

But of course, the argument was anything but over. An increasing number of voters were becoming aware that government was failing to make much headway against the major problems of the day. The economy remained weak, energy costs were rising, and social chaos was spreading in the cities. A few reform-minded Democrats and intellectuals were starting to rethink the premises of big government liberalism, to wonder if there might be less expensive and bureaucratic–and more effective–means to traditional liberal ends. Carter was inclined to agree with them. But such thinking was anathema to the party’s liberal leaders and most powerful interest groups, and they were positioned to stop it.

When Carter took over as president, the nation’s most pressing–and consuming–problems were economic. Growth and worker productivity were low, unemployment and federal deficits were high and rising, and, by midway through the president’s term, inflation and interest rates were compounding at more than 10 percent annually. Carter’s plan was to balance the budget, slashing spending enough to also provide for a $15 billion tax cut which would act as an economic spur. Congress rejected the package, insisting instead on an economic stimulus package (which Carter reluctantly signed) consisting of $15 billion for public works projects, urban aid, and education, the kind of program that reeked of 1933. This pattern was repeated throughout Carter’s term, as unions fought the president’s calls for voluntary wage controls to combat inflation, and Congress resisted Carter’s repeated attempts to balance the federal budget. The president proposed a budget for 1980 designed to restore fiscal austerity and cut spending to keep the deficit for that year under $30 billion. Congress insisted on restoring the cuts, and by the end of the process, the budget was more than $60 billion in the red.

The second great challenge the Democrats faced was an OPEC-induced surge in energy prices. Carter came in with some good and some bad ideas about how to alleviate the energy crisis. Democrats in Congress rebuffed the president’s best plan–Carter’s attempt to lift the price controls Richard Nixon had imposed on domestic energy. But congressional Democrats eagerly adopted his bad ideas, including the creation of the Department of Energy, which would become perhaps the most dysfunctional agency in Washington. House Speaker Tip O’Neill set up a task force to speed along passage of the authorizing bill, getting the agency running in a matter of months. Congress happily signed on in 1980 when Carter asked it to set up the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. The program ultimately spent $88 billion subsidizing American oil and gas companies to try to extract petroleum out of oil shale, an enterprise only slightly more cost-effective than trying to wring water from a stone. The SynFuels concept dispensed a lot of taxpayer money to a lot of Democratic interest groups but did nothing to solve the energy crisis.

The third major challenge was to halt the continuing increase in crime, poverty, and family breakdown, especially in the cities. Carter put forth a training program for AFDC recipients, an early stab at welfare reform. Congressional Democrats insisted instead on broadening the AFDC beneficiary rolls and threw in another public works program for good measure. Then lawmakers advanced the Humphrey-Hawkins act, a resolution that made government-guaranteed full employment the goal and policy of the United States–this even though no one knew how to guarantee full employment short of expanding expensive and corruption-prone government make-work efforts like the CETA program. The left-liberals held both political power and moral sway: When Reps. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) walked out of meetings with the president because he wouldn’t commit to full employment policies for urban blacks, they were cheered for their principle.

But Carter’s downfall wasn’t assured until a pair of foreign policy bungles in the year before the election. First, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, which hawks charged was the result of the administration’s soft attitude towards Moscow’s military threat. Then, in November 1979, the Iranian revolutionaries who had just overthrown the U.S.-backed shah took about 90 hostages in the American embassy in Tehran. After initial negotiations stalled, the State Department, and the party’s human rights liberals, wanted Carter to talk with the hostage takers. The Defense Department, and the party’s hawkish wing, wanted the president to bomb Iran to force the revolutionaries to give up the hostages. Carter tried a middle course, the disastrous helicopter rescue mission known as Desert One. These two foreign policy failures proved the last straw for neoconservatives and many national security voters, convincing them that the Democratic Party was simply too weak and compromised to defend effectively the nation and helping to drive them to the Republicans.

By 1980, many liberals were in open revolt against Carter, abandoning him to support Ted Kennedy’s ultimately-doomed primary challenge even as the public was sending unmistakable signals that it was sick of Kennedy-style big government. The number of Americans who agreed with the statement that “the best government is one which governs least” had risen from 32 percent in 1973 to 59 percent in 1981, and liberal positions on crime and welfare were similarly unpopular. Towards the end of his term, Carter did manage to push through his energy deregulation legislation and to install the monetarist Paul Volcker as Fed chairman. These acts eventually succeeded in bringing down oil prices and the inflation rate–to the political benefit of Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, swap a few particulars, and the same patterns fit the current state of the Republican Party in Washington. The GOP came in to office in 2001 with control of all branches of government, and with a similar confidence in their long-term prospects. Over the last few years, such party operatives as Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Tom DeLay have cowed Democrats with chesty, blustering talk about a “permanent majority.” But like the Democrats circa ’76, Republicans entered Washington three years ago under an ideological banner that had already lost its relevance to most Americans.

Twenty years earlier, a policy agenda of tax cuts and smaller government made practical sense for the country. Reagan succeeded in cutting taxes, and his successors, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, eventually got government spending under control. By the 2000 election, upper-bracket tax rates had been steady for two decades at a rate far lower than they were through most of the previous 50 years, and the federal government’s share of GDP was 18.4 percent, well below where it had been during the Reagan administration. While short-term, broad-based tax cuts still made sense as a recession-fighter, the big challenges America faced–chiefly the unrecognized danger of terrorism and the coming retirement of the baby boom generation–could not be solved with further tax and spending cuts. If anything, the opposite would be called for.

But this budgetary reality had little effect on the movement conservatives who by 2001 dominated the Republican Party. Instead, they embraced the small-government/low taxes paradigm even more tightly, with a moralistic fervor not unlike that which moved liberals in the 1970s to a ferocious defense of big government and high taxes against all logic. Politically, cutting taxes provided for Republicans a unifying force similar to that which spending had provided the Democrats: It was the one policy that almost every part of the often-fractious GOP coalition–libertarians, cultural conservatives, multinationals, small business owners, investors in Wall Street, the energy sector–could agree on. And for the party’s strategists, tax cuts were the route to a permanent GOP majority. The promise of a new rate reduction every year–first rate reductions, then dividend cuts, then corporate breaks–would keep K Street pliable. And eventually, a shift in the tax burden from the wealthy and corporations onto the backs of the middle class would (or so the theory held) cool voter demand for more government, thereby undermining the Democrats’ reason for being.

Whether or not the GOP’s tax strategy will pay dividends this fall is hard to say. On the one hand, the president has been able to warn voters that Kerry will raise taxes (which he will, on upper-income Americans). On the other, $3.25 trillion in long-term tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy, has yielded what has so far been at best an anemic recovery and a half-trillion dollars in structural deficits as far as anyone can reasonably predict. This has meant that voters, by September, preferred a Democrat on the economy over a Republican by 54 percent to 37 percent. The rejection even extends to tax cuts, historically the domestic topic on which the GOP scores the biggest advantage; Gallup polls throughout the summer found voters preferring Kerry to Bush on the issue.

Meanwhile, as tax receipts have plummeted, federal spending has increased by more than 6 percent per year since 2000. Most, if not all, of this spending–for the military, for homeland security, and for prescription drugs for seniors–was necessary and had broad public support. Yet it has panicked conservatives, who cannot accept the historical reality that, as Sebastian Mallaby wrote in these pages last month, when advanced societies grow wealthier, the share of GDP devoted to government inevitably increases (“The Deficit Conquers All,” September 2004).

Instead of facing this reality, the average congressional Republican has acted like a preacher hooked on prostitutes, publicly inveighing against the sin while personally wallowing in it. There is no greater measure of spending indiscipline than “earmarks,” targeted spending provisions attached to appropriations bill. The number of earmarks has tripled since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 1994.

Further crippling the GOP’s spending discipline has been the same tendency that affected the Democrats two decades ago: confusing the agendas of its favored interest groups with the interests of the public at large. Where the Democrats created ineffective public works bills and the ludicrous SynFuels program, the Republicans have put forth an energy bill that has collapsed under the weight of its own energy-sector subsidies, and a Medicare prescription-drug benefit so indulgent of the pharmaceutical and HMO lobbies that barely a quarter of seniors support the bill. Meanwhile, energy costs remain high, Medicare premiums are rising, and polls show that on energy and health-care issues, voters prefer Democrats to Republicans by wide margins.

Two decades ago, Democrats granted moral authority to identity-group liberals, who, in their admirable zeal to fight discrimination, soft-pedaled evidence that the country was growing more tolerant, and refused to consider that factors other than racism might explain, say, lagging minority test scores. As a result, Democrats defended unpopular quota-style affirmative-action programs and bilingual education. Today, Republicans bow to the supposed moral superiority of Christian conservatives, who, though living in the most religiously-minded and tolerant country on earth, persist in feeling persecuted. The GOP lets these groups lead them by the nose–even when, as on stem cell research, it puts them in the position of defending the unpopular and morally dubious argument that millions of Parkinson’s patients should be denied a major hope for a cure in order to prevent the destruction of a few zygotes with zero chance of ever becoming humans. Two decades ago, Carter’s overly cautious foreign policy helped convince millions of security-minded Democrats to abandon the party. Now, Bush’s incautious foreign policy may be driving millions of Republicans the other way.

Of course, Carter and Bush are not necessarily bound to the same fate, in part because of their very different personal characteristics. Carter was a micromanager who, while president, famously drew up a schedule for the White House tennis court; Bush says he doesn’t bother to read the newspapers. Carter governed by consensus and was prone to abrupt policy changes; Bush makes snap judgments and rarely changes course. But the greatest difference between the two, and the one with perhaps most enduring consequences, lies in their attitude towards the self-destructive, retrograde tendencies within their own parties.

Jimmy Carter fought against his party’s worst instincts, lost, and in losing made himself look weak. His failure to win reelection convinced his party’s liberal wing not that they should have been more open to Carter’s reforms, but that they had been right all along. In 1984, Democrats rejected the progressive centrist presidential bid of Gary Hart in favor of liberal stalwart Walter Mondale, who in turn chose as running-mate a liberal New York congresswoman, Geraldine Ferraro, to form a ticket that carried one state in 50. By 1988, the Democratic landscape started to shift; the party nominated a pragmatist governor, Michael Dukakis, and a conservative Texas senator, Lloyd Bentsen, as his running mate. But Dukakis, tone-deaf on crime and defense, fit too easily into a right-wingers’ caricature of a Northern liberal, and he, too, lost badly. It wasn’t until 1992 that the party finally put a Southern centrist, Bill Clinton, at the top of the ticket. And it took Clinton eight years of cajoling and fighting with his party’s liberal base (who put up big fights over welfare reform and the president’s fiscal conservatism) to put the Democrats more-or-less squarely behind moderate policies. Changing a party takes time.

By contrast, George Bush has embraced his party’s worst instincts, thereby winning its support and making himself look strong. This image of strength, plus an ineffective opponent, might be enough to win him reelection. But ironically, a Bush win will have the same effect on the GOP as Carter’s loss had on the Democrats: It will convince the ideologues that they were right. For that reason, moderate Republicans who truly want to take back their party must secretly hope–indeed, many do–that Bush loses.

A different kind of GOP isn’t hard to imagine, at least in the abstract. In The New York Times Magazine last month, David Brooks sketched out a reasonable vision of what he calls “progressive conservatism.” Brooks wants the GOP to embrace a slightly larger government, to value balanced budgets as highly as low taxes, to stop doing so many favors for business, and to focus on entitlement reform, national service, improving teacher quality, and promoting marriage in the ghetto. This is the vision of the Republican Party that belongs chiefly to its rump reformist wing: John McCain, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and others. It’s not a bad platform, and Brooks is probably right that the Republicans would command more votes and run the country better if they hewed more closely to it.

But there are two problems with this vision. First, Brooks’s “progressive conservatism” is far closer to the majority Democratic position than the Republican one. Second, it is almost impossible to see the current GOP accepting it any time soon, even if Bush loses in November. A Bush defeat–especially if it is accompanied by Republican loss of the Senate–would certainly lead to some version of the “civil war” Pat Buchanan and others have warned of. In that war, McCain and other moderates will enjoy some “I told you so” authority. But it is hard to exaggerate how weak, small, and out of step the moderates are with the rest of the party machinery–even with those who are furious with the GOP leadership. It’s hard to imagine Tom DeLay waking up in January and suddenly deciding to become a champion of bipartisanship. Dennis Hastert and Bill Frist are probably not going to stop giving business lobbies the run of Congress–with two decades of history and habit pointing them the other way. The Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation are not likely to abandon the low-tax/small government agenda that lured all of their scholars and is written into their bylaws. Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh aren’t suddenly going to turn into reasoning pragmatists, even-handedly comparing economic models and different proposals for school reform. Perhaps most importantly, with virtually all of Congress running for reelection in politically safe districts where they need only draw the votes of stalwarts, it’s hard to imagine GOP voters insisting on an immediate, rapid change in ideological direction.

Political parties don’t abandon their most cherished ideas, break with their most powerful interests, or dump their most entrenched leaders for high-minded civic reasons. They do so only when they lose elections again, and again, and again. And if history’s any guide, that is going to be the eventual fate of today’s Republican Party.

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Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a staff writer at the New Yorker.