The modern Republican Party has shown itself to be, once again, the master of the close call. Reversing a double-digit deficit in the generic congressional polls three weeks before the election, facing near certain loss of both the House and Senate, the party strategically abandoned its most vulnerable candidates in order to target a massive wave of negative ads on just enough districts and states to retain a miniscule majority in both houses.
It is a truism that U.S. elections are decided on a winner-take-all basis, but the Republicans take that truism quite literally. A narrow victory is as good as a landslide, since the power it confers is the same. They seem to think that its actually better to win by a narrow margin, because every vote over 50 percent plus one is, in a sense, wasted. In Congress, every piece of major legislation seems to come down to a late-night flurry over whether wavering Republicans will come back to the fold, and yet come back they always do, to give the bill a one- or two-vote margin. This isnt an accident; its a strategy. Whereas legislative leaders in the past wanted big bipartisan victories to ensure a lasting base of support for their policies, the modern Republicans seem to view those extra votes as money left on the table, or as compromises that didnt need to be made.
The same strategy has reached into the electoral arena. Whereas every previous president with an ambitious agenda sought a reelection margin as affirming as Reagans in 1984, Bushs innovation was to recognize that you get no more power from an affirmative 49-state victory with 60 percent of the vote than from a narrow win based largely on disqualifying your opponent. This year, Republicans looked disaster in the eye. But rather than changing anything about their message to regain an affirmative mandate, they squeaked by again, doing whatever it took to disqualify just enough Democratic challengers. The median voter toward whom both parties supposedly gravitateas political scientists have been telling us for 50 yearswas once again forgotten as the strategy of mobilizing an angry base succeeded.
Its a brilliant strategy as long as it works. But eventually, it will become apparent that the normal rules of the game were there for a reason. Without a broad mandate, power alone was not enough to get Bushs Social Security plan moving. It wasnt enough to permanently resolve the distinctions between social and economic conservatives that comprise the majority. And it wont be enough to prevent the crackup that will soon finish off the era of Republican dominance.
For the moment, all eyes will be on the failure of the Democratic Party, once again, to overcome the money, shamelessness, and mastery of political mechanics of the Republicans. In addition to all the internal fights and finger-pointing, its possible that the Democratic coalition will actually break up, with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) carrying off a small band of conservatives, and liberals who had only recently become enthusiastic about the party heading to some other structure.
But the Republican coalition will break apart, too. For the most part, its already broken, held together only by the fear of what a Democratic majority with the power to investigate would have revealed. As Bush becomes a lame duck and the presidential race begins without a consensus nominee, a party that has papered over every choice about its direction will meet reality.
The crisis of the religious conservatives is the first spark. They were promised so much, they believe they were responsible for all the GOP victories since 2000, and they believe they have gotten almost nothing they wanted. On top of that, there will be a clash within the religious right, as there are those who never wanted to become so deeply involved in ordinary politics.
Then there will be the opposite of the religious rightthe fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republicans who might coalesce around a figure like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But that faction also has two branches: the truly radical fiscal conservatives, who still want to shut down government agencies, and the more responsible business types, such as McCain and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who think government has a role to play. Layer on top of that the divisions on foreign policy that will emerge as George W. Bush becomes a lame duck, and all the ingredients are there for a two-or three-way splintering of the party.
One faction of a splintered party might even lead to the creation of a third party: One can imagine McCain, if rejected by social conservatives for the Republican presidential nomination, allying with Lieberman on an independent candidacy. With the Democratic Party in crisis, and a Republican nominee markedly too conservative for the country (Newt Gingrich, for example), such a third-party ticketmade up of people who can claim they were rejected by the ideologues in both their partieswould have a superficial appeal. The problem with it is simply that it would be a very, very conservative party, not a centrist alternative at all. McCain is no moderate, and never claimed to be one. And Liebermans strained relationship with the Democratic Party, it has become apparent, has nothing to do with the party and everything to do with his own journey toward deep neoconservatism.
Among the remaining Republicans, the most appealing option should be that described by the young conservative writers Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat in their article in The Weekly Standard, The Party of Sams Club: Acknowledge that the socially conservative working-class white families who make up the Republican voting base actually need something from government, and that if youre worried about strong families, the best thing you can do is to ensure that they have health care and a measure of economic security. But as intellectually sensible as that argument is, it goes against the grain of elite Republican thought, which would rather deal with social conservatives through symbolism, and would drop such voters entirely if it could.
The Republican logic for most of the last five years has been that power is its own justification. Questions of purpose and unity were subsumed beneath the underlying questions of us or them, friend or enemy. But one more victory will unleash all those forces, claims, and frustrations buried under that strange view of the world.