Triumphal March Or Panicked Counter-Attack?

As regular readers have probably noticed, I believe the $64,000 question of contemporary U.S. politics is why one of the two major parties made the historically unusual decision to react to consecutive electoral landslide defeats in 2006 and 2008 by moving rapidly away from the vicinity of the political “center.” My theory has been that this strange phenomenon is probably best explained by the convergence of a long-term trend–the decades-long conquest of the GOP by “movement conservatism”–and a short-term challenge–the need for conservatives to disassociate themselves from the Bush era without repudiating their own ideology.

But my esteemed friend and former colleague Jonathan Chait offered a different, if not entirely inconsistent, theory in an important column at New York published yesterday. Chait’s analysis is that Republicans are deeply aware they are doomed demographically, and are gambling everything on a last-ditch, all-or-nothing, confrontational appeal to White Identity Politics:

If they can claw out a presidential win and hold on to Congress, they will have a glorious two-year window to restore the America they knew and loved, to lock in transformational change, or at least to wrench the status quo so far rightward that it will take Democrats a generation to wrench it back.

Chait and I point to a lot of the same phenomena to chronicle the unlikely and unmistakable nature of the rightward shift in the GOP’s agenda and message after 2008:

Following Obama’s win, all sorts of loose talk concerning the Republican predicament filled the air. How would the party recast itself? Where would it move left, how would it find common ground with Obama, what new constituencies would it court?

The most widely agreed-upon component of any such undertaking was a concerted effort to win back the Hispanic vote. It seemed like a pure political no-brainer, a vital outreach to an exploding electoral segment that could conceivably be weaned from its Democratic leanings, as had previous generations of Irish and Italian immigrants, without altering the party’s general right-wing thrust on other issues. George W. Bush had tried to cobble together a comprehensive immigration-reform policy only to see it collapse underneath a conservative grassroots revolt, and John McCain, who had initially co-sponsored a bill in the Senate, had to withdraw his support for it in his pursuit of the 2008 nomination.

In the wake of his defeat, strategists like Karl Rove and Mike Murphy urged the GOP to abandon its stubborn opposition to reform. Instead, incredibly, the party adopted a more hawkish position, with Republicans in Congress rejecting even quarter-loaf compromises like the Dream Act and state-level officials like Jan Brewer launching new restrictionist crusades. This was, as Thomas Edsall writes in The Age of Austerity, “a major gamble that the GOP can continue to win as a white party despite the growing strength of the minority vote.”

None of this is to say that Republicans ignored the rising tide of younger and browner voters that swamped them at the polls in 2008. Instead they set about keeping as many of them from the polls as possible.

But, says Chait, they were only in a position to wage their war against voting because they lucked into a 2010 victory that had little or nothing to do with their own electoral appeal:

Grim though the long-term demography may be, it became apparent to Republicans almost immediately after Obama took office that political fate had handed them an impossibly lucky opportunity. Democrats had come to power almost concurrently with the deepest economic crisis in 80 years, and Republicans quickly seized the tactical advantage, in an effort to leverage the crisis to rewrite their own political fortunes. The Lesser Depression could be an economic Watergate, the Republicans understood, an exogenous political shock that would, at least temporarily, overwhelm any deeper trend, and possibly afford the party a chance to permanently associate the Democrats with the painful aftermath of the crisis.

During the last midterm elections, the strategy succeeded brilliantly. Republicans moved further right and won a gigantic victory.

But consolidating this victory and putting off the day of demographic reckoning requires Republican victory in 2012, and that’s where the panic-stricken undertones of conservative doom-mongering about another Obama term reflect both an external message to threatened elements of the electorate and the internal realization that the move-right-and-win gamble could still backfire.

I would add to Chait’s astute analysis the realization by smart Republicans that a quirk of electoral demographics whch benefited them in 2010 would likely boomerang in 2012: the unusually strong alignment of the two parties to the variables of ethnicity and age coming out of the 2008 election. That meant the GOP would automatically do a lot better in a midterm election where always, eternally, older white voters form a significantly larger percentage of the electorate. But an electorate much like that of 2008 is likely to reemerge in 2012, unless it is skewed by the kind of barriers to participation that state-level Republicans have been busily building.

But the question remains: does the ever-more-intensely reactionary character of the GOP reflect nothing more than a cynical adjustment to adverse demographic trends, as Jon’s analysis seems to suggest, or something more fundamental to a conservative ideology whose power in the GOP has been steadily on the rise since 1964, as I tend to believe? It’s probable, of course that there is truth in both theories, or even that something else is going on that both theories insufficiently take into account, like the unleashed power of avaricious economic forces that are determined to hobble or harness government once and for all, and that deploy cultural panic as a tactical weapon.

That’s probably enough speculation for now in a blog that requires a post every 50 minutes or so, but this remains a big topic for progressives who want to understand why the 2012 Republican campaign looks, sounds and feels like a holy war.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.